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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

Friendships In Business

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

Unless you are really antisocial, we all have friends: work friends, childhood friends, school friends, close friends, best friends, and the list goes on and on! Some of us have more friends than others. Some of us invest in quality and some of us quantity. Regardless of our individual preferences to the number and types of friendships we build in our lifetimes, the data is overwhelmingly clear: having friends creates a better quality of life and a longer life.

So why do friendships get such a bad wrap in the workplace? Some of these statements may give us a better understanding of why working together and being friends is not considered a good practice by many – but should it be that way?

  • “Oh, she was promoted because the CFO is her friend.”

  • “Good management means that the people that work for you are your employees, not your friends.”

  • “Stop trying to be everyone’s friend; you need to be their leader.”

  • "Fraternization is not allowed." (And in the Armed Forces, it is illegal!)

  • “I just want to come and do my job – not build relationships (friendships) with my co-workers.”

Well, what if building relationships was part of your job? What if getting to know those around you on a deeper level was necessary to doing a great job? May we suggest that getting to know your customer (internal or external) so that you can anticipate the needs and expectations of the people within the organization may be your real job? Possessing emotional intelligence, social intelligence or just the ability to make friends and influence people has profound implications on your work life as well as your life in general!

The book, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie has sold over 30 million copies since it was first published in 1936.  It was number eight on the list of "Top Check Outs Of All Time" by the New York Public Library. And In 2011, the book was number 19 on Time’s list of the 100 most influential books. It would seem that making friends is not a simple and natural activity for all of us. That we may need some help from a book, a teacher, or those around us to get it correct. “Plays well with others” is not just a checkbox on an elementary school report card; it may be the ultimate checkbox on a life that is fulfilling, successful, and long-lasting.


“In my office, you will not see the degree I have from the University of Nebraska, or the master’s degree I have from Columbia University, but you’ll see the certificate I got from the Dale Carnegie course.” – Warren Buffet


According to research conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration:

  • 40% of Americans say they "sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful"

  • 20% say they are "lonely or socially isolated"

  • 28% of older adults live alone

These stats match up with a 2018 study conducted by Cigna that found only half of Americans say they have "meaningful" in-person social interactions on a daily basis.

The data and research tell us that having a network of friends is a good thing socially. So why, then, when friendships get into business, politics, or religion, does someone being your ‘friend’ become wrought with challenges and speculation as to what is ‘really’ going on?

We suspect that the issue is not due to the friendship, but to the lack of understanding of what a friend really is in our lives. And like most things we discuss in our blog, it really comes down to a misunderstanding of the definition of what a friend is.

True friendship, our research has found, consists of the following:

  • Trust

  • Mutual respect

  • Honesty

  • Support

  • Empathy and understanding

  • Loyalty

  • Equality

  • Forgiveness

  • Independence

  • Enjoyment of the other person's presence

What a great list of traits and characteristics for any relationship to have. When they all come together to form a friendship, it seems that is where the difficulty comes in. Wouldn’t we all want these traits to be true in all of our governmental, business, religious, military, non-profit, and educational settings? So, why do we try so hard to eliminate or discredit friendships when they inevitably occur in these situations and settings? We believe it is NOT the friendship that is the problem, but the lack of being a good friend that is the true cause of the pushback! And in many situations, it is rooted in the characteristic of HONESTY!

Some of us have this distorted notion that a friend would never hurt you nor say something that would offend you. We put trust, respect, and honesty as the top three traits on the list for a reason. A friend would not try to intentionally hurt you emotionally, but by virtue of being a friend, they are close to you. And therefore, they can say things that hit deeper than a mere acquaintance could ever reach. We let our guard down with a friend. We are vulnerable with our friends. But expecting our friends to only say the things we want to hear is not having a friend, but having an echo chamber for yourself.

A true friend would (and should) tell you the truth as they see it. And as a friend, you should not be mad or offended by their attempt to honestly express what they see and feel. Trust that they are trying to help and communicate with you. Show them the mutual respect of listening to what they have to say. You do not have to ultimately agree with them, but listening and seeking to understand are the behaviors that build trust in a relationship.

So, if your boss is your friend as well as your supervisor, should they not be honest and sincere when your performance is not measuring up to the standards? If anyone should be able to tell you truthfully and sincerely that your actions are not perceived as you think they are or that you are a wonderful person, however, as an employee, there are areas that you can work on, then what type of supervisor would be able to do it?

Too many Annual Performance Reviews are filled with dishonesty, or at a minimum, distortions of what really happened over the course of the past 12 months. Here are just a few of the reasons we routinely see:

  1. The manager is too overworked to put in the time or effort to complete the annual review forms with care and accuracy. Some managers have more than 10 direct reports and little to no additional time to complete an accurate and genuine assessment.

  2. Some companies (even worse – some departments or managers) have a culture of "no one gets a 5/5, because that would leave no room for improvement or change." Why have a 5 on the scale if it is unreachable?

  3. Conversely, some companies have a culture of adversity avoidance and most everyone gets 5/5 or "Exceeds expectations" – even those that, within the next 12 months, get a layoff notice or no annual raise.

  4. Some companies use a bell-curve system to grade all employees, as if all performance fits neatly into a standard distribution model.

  5. Or, in some companies, there are outdated rules that limit managers from accurately assessing performance, like spoken or unspoken rules about tenure or position changes.

The real problem is two-fold: First, why do we not measure performance based on known metrics and evaluate that performance on a monthly basis, rather than try to remember and summarize 12 months into one evaluation? And secondly, stop trying to manufacture performance outcomes based on compensation requirements or pre-established curves and norms. The result of these behaviors is distrust of the organization and disengagement of the employees.

Since friendships have proven to be such a beneficial aspect of our lives, and for most of us, we spend as many hours, or possibly even more hours, working, then in a nonworking environment, why would we not want as many friendships in our business lives as possible? Why do we say we don’t like to mix business with pleasure? Why do we have so many stigmas attached to friendships and management responsibilities? Is the real answer that we are not as good of friends as we think we are with those around us? Could it be that we believe we must do things in business that we would never want to do to our real friends? Have our ethics, morals, and social constructs become so divergent that we act one way with our coworkers and customers, and we act in a completely different way with our close friends?

The companies that treat their customers and their employees as relationships that look and act more like a friendship are the companies that garner respect and create loyalty in their brand. The leaders and managers that understand that being a good friend to those they work with is not a liability but an asset are the leaders and managers that will get the most from their teams. Trust, honesty, mutual respect, support, empathy, loyalty, equality, forgiveness, independence and the enjoyment of the relationship are all traits that we, as friends, should work on giving to one another, but also the traits that we should expect and desire by those whom we work with on a daily basis! Imagine how our lives would be so much more meaningful if we could all have a few more true friends in business!

If you want ideas or suggestions on how to become a better friend with those you work with or those you engage in business with, reach out to us at – we are always looking to make new friends and to influence others!


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