Friendships at Work: Building Connected Organizations

Friendships at Work: Building Connected Organizations

How well do you know the person who sits next to you at work? What about the woman on the next floor, or down the hall? We are busy, and it’s all too easy to bring only a portion of ourselves to work, and to expect no more than a limited view into the lives of others.

And that’s a problem because, when we fail to recognize people in all their complexity or be recognized in turn, we create openings for misunderstanding and stress. What’s more, we miss out on the chance to have real, lasting connections with colleagues – connections that stretch beyond the workplace and can alter the course of our lives (and our businesses) for the better.

As research from the Gallup Organization shows, work groups in which employees acknowledge having a “best friend” are among the most productive and trusting. Moreover, employees who have strong friendships at work are more likely to remain with an organization and they are better at handling stress. Another study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Minnesota found that “friends were more committed at the start of a project, showed better communication while doing the activity and offered teammates positive encouragement” while also “[evaluating] ideas more critically.”

But how do you create the circumstances for friendship within work environments? Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, argues that people have to open up to each other and provide “deeper personal revelations than the standard small talk stuff.”

Peter Paul Rubens, Self-Portrait in a Circle of Friends fro Mantua, early 17th century, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia commons

Peter Paul Rubens, Self-Portrait in a Circle of Friends fro Mantua, early 17th century, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia commons

For our participants, talking about literature means opening up about their lives and experiences; they consequently come to know each other as dedicated spouses, children of aging parents and parents themselves – and they often become friends. As one participant recently told us, when reflecting on the program,

“I think people felt freer to talk about themselves. It was almost like we have permission now to discuss our lives and our past and our children, whereas I guess sitting in the break room just having lunch, you [were] just chitchatting about work.”

The payoff for this kind of deep knowing struck home for us recently after a program in which participants read and discussed The Girl With All the Gifts, a postapocalyptic novel in some ways about parenting in extremis that brought up powerful conversations. Afterward, the professor shared that

“the conversation really dwelled on what do we owe children, and what have children become? Most people around that table were parents or even grandparents. There was a lot of understanding about how complex children can be, so this idea that this child was not all sweetness and light really connected with people. We talked about this in particular, that even though [the protagonist] is different than what a normal 10-year-old is like, the author’s really skilled at making us believe that she’s a 10-year-old girl. She was capable of these complexities. The main secondary character, the teacher of this little girl wants to really protect her, but in many ways, this girl is beyond her protection. I think that reflected a lot of people’s thinking about modern childhood.”

This conversation gave participants an opportunity to share their thinking with one another, and, in their exit interviews, participants told us that it changed their understanding of each other’s minds. One participant remarked that it “helps you get to know people better and how they think about things. That can translate to ‘well, how do they think about things at work?’”

Although The Girl With All the Gifts sparked a particularly intense conversation about parenting and children, topics like these regularly come up in Books@Work sessions. This makes sense – for many participants, bringing their full selves to work means acknowledging that they are both workers and parents. One participant found herself bonding with a coworker she hardly knew before her Books@Work seminar:

“It’s funny, because I’ll say, ‘Oh, how’s your toddler doing? This is what mine’s done this week. I’m sure yours is probably driving you crazy.’ Every time we’d get together, he’s like, ‘Oh, man. I’m too old for this.’ It’s nice to have that. We learn things about each other that we never knew, that we have common aspects of life that you don’t really get to know when you’re just sending emails.”

Discussing big ideas at work – the deeply human themes that literature always brings up – creates opportunities for people to acknowledge the breadth and depth of their experiences. And bringing the complexity of our lives into work fosters meaningful connections – true friendships – between colleagues who otherwise might only ever communicate by email, as well as those who have worked side by side for years. The result translates into more thoughtful, connected workplaces.

Do you have a friend at work?

Image: August Macke, Lady in a Green Jacket, 1913, Museum Ludwig, Cologne [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:

How “Reading between the Lines” Helps at Work (and Everywhere Else)

What’s a Story?: On Fiction and Lies

Recognizing Others and Ourselves Through Literature

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.

Jessica Isaac

Jessica Isaac

Jessica Isaac is a former member of the Books@Work team.