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Why Your Boss Should Care About How Many Friends You Have At Work

Friendships are the secret to employee engagement. A half-hearted effort not only disappoints a manager; it means letting down a friend.

Why Your Boss Should Care About How Many Friends You Have At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Leon Fishman]

Unless you have been living under a corporate rock, you are aware 70% of us report not feeling the love for our jobs. The technical term for this state of apathy is “not engaged.” The translation, according to Gallup, is a zombie-like state of on-the-job sleepwalking.

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As you can imagine, a half-awake workforce presents a host of financial implications for companies. While the research backing this abounds, the most cited statistic comes from Gallup’s “State Of The American Workplace”, which found that a comparatively more engaged workforce claims 147% higher earnings per share. With that kind of financial fodder, it’s no surprise that Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends reported that engagement exploded on to the scene this year, rising to the number-one challenge facing companies around the world.

Companies are noticeably ready and eager to implement change. Unfortunately, the changes they want to make don’t reflect the reality of how we are working. Their goal to convert swarms of disengaged employees into a more emotionally committed, energized, and passionate tribe misses a critical piece of data–we are already spent.

Some 70% of employees work beyond scheduled time and on weekends, despite a desire to scale back; 68% of women would rather have more free time than more money, while 80% of men would prefer to work fewer hours than their typical 50-hour working week demands.

Unfortunately, all too many of us could be taking breaks, but choose not to. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the United States 23rd out of 23 countries for work-life balance. Even the most bare-bones respite–company-ordained time off–is lost on most of us. Research from Oxford Economics finds that Americans are wasting $52.4 billion of vacation time each year.

And it certainly isn’t because we don’t need it. We have officially rung in the era of the “overwhelmed employee,” according to Deloitte Consulting. Over two-thirds of respondents deem the phenomenon as an urgent matter to address.

Time To Thrive

Clearly, something doesn’t add up. Why would we exert such an appreciable amount of discretionary effort if we are detached and “checked out” from our emotionally vacuous jobs? After all, if an engaged workforce is one that displays an unparalleled level of commitment to their work–by far, the most parsimonious definition–have we not already crossed the finish line?

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Arianna Huffington would likely say so, suggesting we all take a deep breath, say “ohm,” and slow down our race up the ladder. In her best-selling book, Thrive, she urges readers to stop pouring themselves into their work and start prioritizing what’s important in their lives. Her wake-up call came after a career-long pursuit to attain our culture’s most coveted measures of success–money and status–caused her to pass out from exhaustion and wake up in a pool of her own blood.

Since then, her impassioned plea to change the way we view our success has struck a chord with the burnt-out masses. The barometer of our success ultimately demands a third metric: creating a life of well-being. She sums up this mindset as “taking as good care of ourselves as we do our smartphones.” According to Huffington, putting this mindset into practice requires adhering to one predominant “truth.” We need to stop leaving our lives–and souls–behind when we go to work.

To do this, companies need their own wake-up call. They need to realize that it is no longer relevant to track how engaged we are at work. Giving more of ourselves is simply not sustainable. Our workplaces need to build–not deplete–our emotional resources. We should feel as alive and vital at work as we do outside of work. In the parlance of Huffington, we should be thriving. What exactly does a thriving workplace look like?

To cast a scientific net on this question, it’s important to know the number-one contributor to living a thriving life. If you awaken any well-being expert in the middle of the night and ask this question, you might be surprised at the answer. It’s not more positive emotions, more leisure time, or even more meaningful work. The resonant determinant of a life well lived is our relationships. In fact, putting a price tag on our connections shows the supreme value we place on them. If you have a friend whom you see on most days, the increase to your happiness is like earning $100,000 more each year. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie, it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.

To increase our thriving quotient at work, connection unambiguously matters. The problem is the kind of connection we need to thrive is woefully absent from our workplaces. The good news is that science shows we are capable of creating it.

The Science of Fast Friends

Arthur Aron, a social psychologist who runs the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University, has studied how to induce meaningful connections for nearly 50 years. In Aron’s original 1997 laboratory experiment, he set out to see if he could create the lab conditions whereby strangers could quickly bond and form close friendships. It worked like a charm. Aron uncovered how to foster closeness and break down emotional and social barriers in less than 45 minutes.

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In the experiment, participants were split into two groups and then partnered up. The partners in each group asked each other different questions as part of a “sharing game.” The first group’s participants asked each other questions like: “How did you celebrate last Halloween?”

The second group wasn’t allowed to engage in conversation that was reminiscent of small talk. Instead, they asked each other questions such as: “Given the choice to invite anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” By the end of the study, participants who took turns self-disclosing reported feeling significantly closer to one another than those who spent their time engaging in small talk. Members of the second group also reported greater interest in collaborating with their partner on future projects. All of that group’s members became fast friends. Almost all exchanged contact information. Some became lifelong friends. Two volunteers fell in love and got married.

Aron’s study is strikingly consistent with research on how workplace friendships form. Two researchers, Patricia Sias and Daniel Cahill from Washington State University, found the factor that determined whether mere acquaintances could transcend into actual friends at work was the amount of time they spent talking. But again, they had to eschew the alluring comfort of small talk. The kinds of topics that forged enduring relationships all had one thing in common: they involved self-disclosure around non-workplace topics. Like Aron’s study, the more they shared, the closer they became.

How would you use this research to encourage more workplace friendships? One simple and straightforward application is to reconsider how newcomers are brought on board. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests organizations most successful at integrating new employees use a relational approach, helping new hires to rapidly establish relationships with coworkers. The approach, while preferable, still relies on outdated best practice.

As a new hire, we are instructed to set up as many introductory meetings that our calendar permits, or until we get busy with real work. In these meetings, quantity trumps quality. More often than not, the exchanges are structured to be reliable purveyors of small talk. Replacing this practice with Aron’s 36 questions would launch relationships into overdrive while also making employees more productive, collaborative, and accountable. The reason is simple. When colleagues can traverse acquaintance status and move into the friend realm, their motivation deepens. A half-hearted effort means much more than a dissatisfied customer or disappointed manager. It means letting down a friend.

Workplaces that convert their employees’ untenable ties into the durable bonds shared by fast friends will have cultures and communities that are alive and generative–in one word, thriving. As denizens of these communities, we will be doing something even more powerful than bringing our lives and souls with us to work: we will be sharing them with friends.

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If you wonder how much more engaged that would make you, then all you need to do is imagine receiving a $100,000 raise.

Jessica Amortegui is a positive leadership development consultant and committed culture shaper. You can reach her on her website or follow her on Twitter.

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