Research shows that having a best friend at work, or what some call a “work spouse,” can be a good thing. Gallup research has found a “concrete link” between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees put into their jobs. The research firm says that 63% of women who strongly agree that they have a best friend at work are engaged in their jobs. Just 29% of those who don’t have an office bestie say they are engaged in their work.
But what happens when that friendship turns sour? Perhaps you’ve had a falling out or a major disagreement. Suddenly, the person who makes work fun can be a source of dread.
It’s not very different from falling out with your spouse or best friends, says Kira Nurieli, CEO of Harmony Strategies Group, a dispute-resolution and crisis-management firm. “The only difference is it may affect your productivity at work, whereas at home it would affect your productivity at home,” she says.
There are some ways to minimize this effect, however. Here is a six-step game plan to handle this upsetting situation:
Analyze the conflict
A conflict usually falls into one of three categories, Nurieli says.
- Big, intense events that are one-offs
- Chronic issues that aren’t likely to change
- Small conflicts that are not chronic
Your course of action for dealing with each of these types of conflict will likely be different. If someone made a big mistake or you had a blowup with your coworker, but it isn’t likely to happen again, you may want to find a way to move forward. But, let’s say you have been dealing with a series of small transgressions that show you have very different values. That may be reason to distance yourself and put the brakes on the friendship, Nurieli says.
If you’re angry or upset, it’s difficult to think straight because you’re in fight-or-flight mode, says attorney and HR consultant Scott Warrick, author of Solve Employee Problems Before They Start: Resolving Conflict in the Real World. “Slow down, because your logical brain, which are your frontal lobes, are at least three or four or five seconds behind your emotion,” he says. Your first reaction will likely be wrong, he adds.
Think about the outcome you want
Nurieli says that conflict provides an opportunity to learn about yourself, including your triggers, reactions, and boundaries. It can be a growth opportunity. So, think about the best outcome given the circumstances. Do you want to reconcile? Do you want to distance yourself from this person? Take an objective look and then think about the best way to move forward toward the outcome you want.
One thing that isn’t a good idea is avoidance. At one of her previous jobs, Cara Wood, now digital marketing manager at ShopPad, became close friends with one of her coworkers. But, after a while, she realized that the woman seemed to be the cause of a lot of office drama, and Wood tried to distance herself. The coworker noticed. “She ended up calling me and berating me pretty intensely,” Wood recalls. “After that, I made the mistake of refusing to work with her ever.”
Wood says now she sees that was the wrong course of action and led to her manager taking a dim view of her. “It put a lot of pressure on her to make sure that I was working with somebody I preferred to work with, rather than just the person who was the person I needed to work with,” she says. Wood learned from the situation and, given the chance to do it again, would have tried to work out her differences with her coworker directly.
“I definitely see that maintaining a surface-level friendliness within the office is absolutely key to break up with a coworker friend without hurting your own career,” she says.
Confront the situation
Warrick says that the most important thing you can do once you’ve thought through the situation is to confront it. That doesn’t mean having another conflict. However, you need to discuss the situation with your coworker and find a way to at least be able to work together civilly.
“I tell folks in supervision, ‘If you cannot address and resolve conflict, you cannot be in supervision. Number one thing. So, if you can’t do that, then this relationship will never be restored,” he says.
When you decide to talk things out, find a place and time that isn’t going to be disruptive for coworkers or fuel office gossip, Nurieli says. And go in ready to listen, Warrick says. It’s hard work to resolve conflicts, and sometimes you need to be open to hearing your part in the situation. Be open-minded and try to put yourself in your friend’s position.
Distance yourself if you must
Sometimes, the friendship has run its course or is unhealthy for other reasons. As Rich Bellis previously wrote for Fast Company, if your friendship started because you work together, that can also be a good reason for dialing it back.
One way to do this is through citing professional reasons like office politics, Bellis writes. (One of you might say to the other, “It’s great grabbing lunch with you once in a while, but I’m worried it might put a strain on our team if our other coworkers notice us eating together every single day. I don’t want anyone to feel excluded.”) Pointing to productivity is another. (“You know how we’ve been so swamped with that new project? It might be good for both of us to spend a little more solo time in the trenches chipping away at it.”)
Whatever path you choose, remember that you’ve got to consider your career and the potential fallout that such conflict could have. Manage it professionally and try not to let it affect your productivity or that of others.