Do we really need friends at work?

Written by
Tom Ritchie

03 Sep 2018

03 Sep 2018 • by Tom Ritchie

We are all social beings, yet many of us shut off this part of our personality when we go to work. Drawing on her own experiences of friendship, Future Talent 2018 speaker Dr Margaret Heffernan describes the importance of the relationships she’s forged throughout her career.

In 1943, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow first proposed the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, his ubiquitous theory of the requirements humans need to survive and flourish. On his triangle, just above the basics of safety, food, water, warmth and rest, comes ‘belongingness and love’: the need for intimate relationships and friends. At the top of the pyramid sits ‘self-actualisation’, achieving one’s full potential and exercising creativity.

We often focus on that highest need in our work. We’re constantly looking to fulfill our goals, without really considering how the people we meet along the way may be essential to our self-realisation.

In a 2014 YouGov survey of 5,000 British workers, 42% of respondents said they did not count a colleague as a close friend, a worrying statistic considering we spend upwards of eight hours a day in each other’s company, and will almost certainly need to lean on our peers in times of emotional distress.

Author and businesswoman Margaret Heffernan knows this only too well. While working for the BBC as a producer in the early 1990s, her husband was murdered in front of her. “It was a very difficult time that was obviously made more complicated, because the person who killed my husband faced a court case that dragged on for a number of years,” she says.

Heffernan explains that her friends were “incredibly supportive” and ensured she was in a warm and caring environment. “People would make sure I wasn’t eating on my own at lunchtime and invited me to events,” she explains. “I was lucky to have a very secure job to go back to. They gave me time to get my head together.”

She admits she was “going through the motions”, and that her friends at work got her through “years of misery and loneliness”.

It’s clear throughout our conversation, that Heffernan is grateful not only for this support, but also for the role her friends have played in pushing her to take risks and explore her ideas.

“You need people around you, in your personal and professional life, who know you well enough, you trust enough, that you can argue with them,” she explains.

“Having those arguments pushes your ideas further. Many great companies, products or works of art don’t start out brilliant, but become so by the challenge, changes or contributions of others.”

Making real friends

Two years ago, Heffernan lost a close friend and confidant, a former BBC colleague, whom she describes as “a brilliant, inspiring, wry, intelligent, and harsh critic”. She continues to feel his presence in everything she does.

“He had exceptionally high standards,” she says. “He was always in my head saying, ‘is this good enough, could you do better?’ He had strong values, and we brought out the best in each other. Neither of us is the kind of person who would say ‘that’s good enough’.”

But what about the 42% of workers who say they don’t have friends at work? A quick google search reveals many reputable articles that claim you don’t need to form relationships at work; one even provides a ‘cheat sheet’ for getting through work without forming bonds. Is this lack of connection preventing people from doing their best work?

For Heffernan, shutting off our ability to build meaningful relationships reduces our chances of achieving success and makes us feel less human when we’re in the office.

“I talk a lot about the notion of bringing your whole self to work,” she says. “Part of that is the ability to forge strong bonds with people. If you go in with the mindset that you’re not going to make friends, you are, by definition, leaving a big part of yourself behind. You might do transactions well, but you will miss problems and opportunities. It makes it hard to hold onto any kind of ethical reasoning and you become an automaton. If so, your job can probably be automated,” she says.

While she is quick to point out that we shouldn’t rely on the workplace as our sole source of relationships, or view the office as “a social club”, Heffernan considers it natural to form relationships when we are in our chosen line of work.

“When you have a value congruence and you’re valuing the same principles at home and work, it’s an easier, less stressful, less fake way of working and you do a better job. You feel more motivated by your co-workers, because you’re liberated to be you.”

Solo artists

So why are some people resistant to forging friendships at work? Heffernan believes an increasingly competitive society has bred admiration for the ‘heroic soloist’.

“We’re in love with the myth of the soloist, be they a CEO or an artist,” she says. “Rodin didn’t carve all his sculptures, Da Vinci didn’t paint all his pictures, and Steve Jobs didn’t single-handedly design the iPhone.”

This celebration of individualism stems from what Heffernan sees as a fascination with measuring performance from a young age. With a growing focus on exam results, individual sales targets and rankings, we’re moving towards a society where we feel we have to exceed our peers in every regard.

“Measurements implicitly signify competition, and when the stakes are high, it encourages people to cheat. If my survival in an organisation, or getting a bonus, depends on my ‘score’, who cares how I get it? I just have to score high,” argues Heffernan. “Even if I have a contact or resource that might transform your project for the betterment of the company, I have a reason not to help you.”

Rather than viewing metrics as the holy grail, leaders should encourage collaboration and the idea that the team succeeds and fails together. Ultimately, it gives people room to communicate, form bonds, and positively impact the business.

“In retail and sales, the teams that are encouraged to work collaboratively, to share leads and to say ‘it’s not my customer, it’s our customers’, are much more effective. Not only does the customer prefer it, but the information flows faster,” explains Heffernan.

“Prioritise team awards over the individual,” she suggests. “Make it clear that it’s about the company as a whole, and everybody will benefit from our work and successes.” 

Getting to know each other

Creating this type of working environment is predicated on conversations we often take for granted; finding out about each others’ interests and motivations allows us to form a rounded idea of who our colleagues are.

In her keynote speech at the Future Talent Conference, Heffernan referenced the leadership of Uri Alon, a professor of systems biology at Weizmann Institute in Israel. Rather than opening his weekly lab meetings with work reports, Alon insisted his researchers talk about anything other than science, to gain a better understanding of each others’ personal lives and to “create a sense of connectedness so people want to help each other”.

“Typically, we don’t invest much time in getting to know each other. We don’t know what emotional and intellectual resources each of us brings to the team. Lacking this knowledge, I produce a stereotype and work with a reduced version of somebody,” Heffernan explains.

It is these type of interactions that make Maslow’s theory ring true. With a better understanding of our peers, and the support of those around us when we undertake challenging work, we are able to achieve a higher level of self-actualisation.

“These conversations are foundational,” says Heffernan. “When you’re in crunch mode, they’re what keep people going. Collectively, you can do in teams what my friendships have done for me: you can hold each other to a higher standard.

“They make me want to do a better job, not just for me, but for the team. That’s infinitely more rewarding than any bonus invented."

You can watch an exclusive Q&A, as well as Margaret's presentation from #ChangeboardFT by clicking here.