DESIGNING A GREAT WORKPLACE EXPERIENCE _How to turn a group of strangers into a community of friends? (PART 2)


As we’ve already seen in my previous post, decades of research reveal that the recipe for friendship is simple. Proximity, familiarity, similarity and self disclosure all play a role. The trick is to create the conditions that naturally foster these elements and integrate them into the work environment.

After-work activities represent one approach. Many of the companies that appear on Fortune magazine’s annual list of top workplaces now offer seed money for relatively inexpensive activities that range from after-work yoga to wine-tasting classes to improv training. From a financial perspective this can seem wasteful. Yet the value these activities yield to interpersonal connections-and therefore to employee productivity-makes them a wise investment. Shared activities catalyze workplace friendships in ways few interactions can. They foster proximity between employees who rarely meet, boost their level of familiarity with one another, highlight similarity of interests, and leverage informal, nonwork environments to prompt self-disclosure.

By allowing colleagues to direct their attention to a common task shared activities create opportunities for dialogue without the pressure of forced conversation. In this way, they’re the antidote to a more traditional and often less successful approach to after-work socializing the cocktail party. What’s wrong with cocktail parties? Nothing at all. Unless, of course, you’re interested in fostering meaningful connections.

Cocktail parties tend to isolate people into groups of those they already know, trapping them in conversations that often feel strained and rarely result in close bonds. Partly it’s because there’s nothing to do but talk. For many people, taking the focus off the conversation and placing it squarely on an activity itself reduces self-consciousness and makes connections easier to grow. This can be especially true for the introverts in a group, who are often more comfortable bonding shoulder to shoulder with a colleague than face to face. When shared activities include a physical component, such as running or dancing, they have the added feature of increasing physiological arousal.

Research indicates that when we experience a rush of adrenaline in the company of others, we like them more, and even find them more attractive. The more opportunities employees have sharing in physical activities, like softball, volleyball, or even fishing the easier it is for them to get along. There’s a reason why so many close business connections are forged out on the golf course. Ironically, it’s what we do together outside the office that frequently offers the biggest boon to our relationships at work.


Another insight for sustaining workplace friendships comes to us from an unlikely source: research on conflicts that go horribly-and sometimes violently-wrong.

Superordinate goals can serve as a powerful tool for defusing tension in times of conflict. Just as important, they can also be used to inoculate coworkers before disagreements erupt. When colleagues feel like they’re working to common objective, a sense of shared purpose naturally softens the conditions for friendships. The challenge in many workplaces is that superordinate goals are often surprisingly difficult to identify. In a world in which every employee is a specialist, colleagues can sit next to one another for years and not know what their coworkers are doing. At many offices an employee’s contributions are only visible within their team. How do you leverage superordinate goals under these condititions?

The first step involves helping employees understand the way their colleagues’ work contributes to their own success. It’s when that connection isn’t evident that teams tend to splinter into factions, making friendships harder to foster. Anytime employees view colleagues in another department as a “they” rather than an “us,” you have a problem. In psychological terms what they’re really saying is, they’re lacking a superordinate goal. Some organizations work to abolish the “they” right at the start of an employee’s tenure, building cross-departmental understanding right into the onboarding processes.  Making existing superordinate goals more visible is one approach. Or creating new ones.

Another opportunity for superordinate goals in the workplace is starting cross-departmental competitions and assigning employees who don’t normally work together to the same team. One example is the office version of the Biggest Loser, a game that rewards the group that collectictively loses the most weight with a cash award. Participants can only win when their coworkers are successful, leading them to support one another’s weight-loss efforts, share strategies, and plan meals around a common goal. Even better are wellness programs that reward colleagues for the amount of exercise they undertake collaboratively, encouraging teammates to work out together in groups. Superordinate goals also naturally emerge through joint volunteer efforts, sports teams, and the establishment of a company band. Ultimatelly, the activity itself is not important. What matters is bringing together employees who rarely interact and putting them in situations where collaboration is the only path to success.


Research highlights a surprising benefit of robust social networks. When people have a wide range of connections, it provides them with a sense of psychological security that buffers them from day-to-day stress, And because they experience stress less often, their bodies are better conditioned to fend off physiological challenges when they occur. Workplace connections offer similar benefits. When we feel supported by our colleagues, we are less likely to experience challenging events as stressful, knowing that our teammates are there to back us up. Minor hiccups appear less intimidating, which helps us keep our emotions in check and enables us to make better decisions in the face of crisis. Studies show that the way we perceive our social network is vital to our mental health. When we believe that those around us are available to provide social support-by offering assistance, advice, and emotional reassurance-we tend to be healthier both physically and psychologically. One obvious path to improving perceptions of social support in the workplace involves helping colleagues establish close friendships.

But as many organizations are now discovering, the reverse is also true when a company introduces formal practices that make social support and mutual caring the norm, friendships tend to bloom naturally. One simple way organizations can help employees support one another is by encouraging them to celebrate important milestones. Research shows that how people react to the positive events in one another’s lives is often more important to the quality of a relationship than how they react to negative events. Shared celebrations over a recent marriage engagement, a major birthday, or a recent promotion can magnify positive emotions and strengthen the fabric of a group’s bond. The occasional order of cupcakes won’t break the bank. Yet in many companies every expenditure requires the approval of a manager. Why not give every employee a modest celebration budget that they can use at their discretion?

There is also value to sharing negative events within a group. Recognizing setbacks, like the passing of a spouse or the development of an illness, can draw employees closer together and allow colleagues to provide one another with social support when they need it most.Disclosing setbacks publicly obviously requires an employee’s permission and considerable tact, but connecting over struggles can mean the difference between superficial chit-chat and a lifelong friendship. It’s when we open up about adversity that we build our closest relationships.

 Organizations can also bolster employees’ perception of their support network by encouraging colleagues to pool together resources in a way that helps those confronted with financial emergencies. Starbucks, is one company that’s taken this step, creating the Caring Unites Partners (or CUP) fund that provides grants to employees in need. It’s when organizations take steps to weave employee connections beyond the office that they’ set the stage for a workplace community to emerge. And interestingly, it’s not just the recipients who profit from the additional support. Research shows that altruism often benefits givers more than receivers. Helping others-even when we’re not particularly close-improves our moods and enhances our perceptions of the support we have available, should we need it in the future.


No discussion of workplace friendship would be complete without addressing a legitimate concern that many managers hold about encouraging close employee relationships: the spread of office gossip. When you enhance people’s comfort level working together, you also increase their willingness to share thoughts and feelings they might otherwise keep to themselves. Occasionally, those include unflattering impressions of other employees or managers around the office. Gossip can have a debilitating effect on a workplace. It breeds distrust between colleagues, siphons time away from important projects,and injures company morale. Left unchecked, it can contribute to a culture of fear and anxiety.

So what do you do to prevent office gossip?

The surprising conclusion from a number of psychological experts is that you can’t, and that you might be better off not even trying. Now, before you dismiss this notion, consider the reason researchers believe gossip exists in the first place. Gossip, evolutionary psychologists argue, serves an important function. It provides people with valuable information on how to behave and helps them navigate the world more effectively. Say I hear a rumor that one of my associates, Cheryl, got dressed down by a client this morning for being unprepared. How does that affect my behavior? Well, first, it informs my approach to dealing with Cheryl on our afternoon conference call. Perhaps I’m a little nicer to her before we launch into our weekly update and offer her some encouraging feedback after she presents her portion. When discussing upcoming projects I also might think twice before agreeing to let Cheryl take the lead. The gossip circulating about Cheryl doesn’t do her any good, but it does make me a little better prepared for doing my job.Score one for gossip.

Another benefit of gossip: keeping people in line. As news of of Cheryl’s misstep spreads throughout our division, it conveys a subtle warning: Beware, the gossip tells all of us. Arrive at meetings without doing your homework and your reputation will suffer a similar fate.

A 2012 study uncovered yet another way gossip is beneficial: People are less likely to cheat when there’s a possibility others will gossip about their actions. Gossip appears to foster prosocial behavior. When we’re concerned that others will find out what we’ve done, we’re less likely to act selfishly and more likely to behave in a cooperative fashion. When you consider all the value gossip brings, it’s no wonder it plays such a pivotal role in our lives. According to discourse analysts, nearly 2/3 of conversations contain some elements of gossip. It often goes undetected because we don’t all gossip about the same things. On average, men tend to gossip more about high-powered authority figures who include political figures,athletes, and celebrities. Women, on the other hand, spend more time gossiping about family members and dose friends.

We gossip, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, because in the past our lives depended on it. Back when our ancestors lived in small groups, they were able to monitor one another’s behaviors firsthand. But as group sizes expanded, direct observation was not always feasible. For a while, living a large group was risky, because you didn’t know who to trust. Eventually language entered the picture, and suddenly people had a tool for tracking reputations. Now, if someone behaved unethically, everyone in the group would find out, and soon enough the perpetrator would be shunned. From Dunbar’s perspective, if we didn’t need to gossip we may never have learned how to talk.

Gossip is useful, which is why it often feels so rewarding. When Your coworker Mike tells you that his boss has been spending a lot of time with a particular intern, he implicitly shows that he trusts you and views you as someone worth inviting into an exclusive social circle. It’s a flattering experience. At the same time, Mike gets to demonstrate his moral superiority on the issue of romancing interns while simultaneously proving that he is “in the know.’ That brief exchange brings you and Mike a little closer and gives both of you a temporary bump in self-esteem. As much as we’d like to believe we’re above gossiping, the reality is that we’re all susceptible. It’s an inherent part of who we are. But just because we’re prone to doing certain behaviors doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for business. The more employees gossip behind one another’s backs, the harder it is to build team camaraderie and sustain collaborations.

Some organizations try to root out gossip by outlining formal policies or having executives issue explicit warnings. It’s an approach that displays a basic misunderstanding of human nature.Asking employees to stop talking about one another is a little like warning  your kids never to yell. They can try their best, but eventually they’ll slip up, and when they do, it will only increase the distance between you. Ironically, your disapproval makes the transgression a little more exciting when it happens. The real question-the one that many organizations fail to address-is: What’s causing workplace gossip to crop up in the first place? We all enjoy a bit of gossip, but some of us participate in it more than others. How come? Research shows that teammates are particularly susceptible to gossip when they’re feeling powerless or insecure. The more people feel like they are out of the loop, the more they traffic in scraps of information.

Gossip in the workplace tends to be the weapon of the isolated and socially disenfranchised. When employees feel disconnected  from the broader organization, they resort to forming cliques, drawing some colleagues close by putting other colleagues down. Ironically, it is their need for connections that results in organization-defeating behaviors that ultimately erode a team’s trust. Instead of outlawing gossip, leaders would be better off listening carefully to it instead. People tend to gossip about issues that reflect real workplace concerns. A lack of transparency about important decisions, for example, can breed uncertainty and sow the seeds for organizational chatter. Promoting openness between colleagues and building an environment where people feel safe addressing their concerns reduces the desire for talking behind one another’s backs. Another thing leaders should listen for is the source of the gossip.

The more someone gossips, the more powerless he likely perceives himself to be, which is an issue that deserves genuine attention. There are also those who wield gossip as a weapon, strategically undermining others while attempting to elevate their own status in an organization. There’s a term for them in the literature: workplace terrorists.

It’s important to identify strategic gossipers early, before they can inflict too much harm. The challenge, of course, is that when we’re handed a juicy piece of gossip, it’s easy to be seduced by the feeling that we’ve gained useful information from someone who is on our side which is why it’s important to consider the motivation behind disclosure. Is the speaker trying to help you, hurt a potential rival or both, attitudes toward gossip, like other social norms, are communicated from the top. Leaders have a disproportionate influence over many organizational behaviors, and gossiping is no exception.

If as a manager, you light up when given a piece of gossip, you’re likely  to have team members who do the same and strive to feed you information. And any manager who resorts to speculating with employees about their colleagues is not only undermining organizational trust,he is also damaging his own stature as a leader. Studies show that those who gossip the most are often viewed as the least powerful. How do strong leaders respond to workplace gossip? By listening. And then, by encouraging and modeling open communication. It’s one thing to hear about Cheryl’s unfortunate turn at that client meeting, it’s another to find Cheryl and see if you can help. True friendships can only emerge when there is an openness between colleagues. When teammates have enough confidence in one another to raise difficult topics, even when that means having a challenging conversation. It’s what makes workplace friendships so vital in the first place.When we see that we’re surrounded by people who care about us it’s a lot easier to stay on task.

The Lessons of Friendship

I.Action Items for Managers

Onboard with an eye toward friendship.

Rather than viewing onboarding simply as a tool for getting new hires up to speed, think of it as an opportunity for sparking employee friendships. Consider starting before your new hires arrive, assigning one or two of their colleagues to reach out and give them a head start. Introduce new employees by describing their interests-not just their CV-so that they have something to bond over when meeting with coworkers. And look for collaborative assignments right at the start, so that they can continue to forge connections as part of a team Remember, you’re the host. If you want people staying late at your party, you need to give them a reason to stick around.

Empower your team to find mutual passions.

Instead of organizing social gatherings that may or may not be engaging encourage your employees to take the lead by offering to fund activities that appeal to at least five team members. Friendships don’t take when managers force employees into awkward social activities-not to mention the fact that you’re too busy to play camp counselor. Far better to show your interest in helping employees pursue their passions by asking them to identify fun events they’d like to engage in, Even better: Allow them to bring their significant others along. Encouraging employees to involve spouses in workplace-sponsored events is another way of fostering connections, simultaneously promoting healthier marriages and growing the bond between coworkers’ families.

Simplify caring. Employees grow closer when their colleagues are there to celebrate milestones and provide support in times of difficulty. Great workplaces make it easy for teammates to magnify positive events and empower them to get creative and customize their approach to each fellow employee. Here’s one example: sending automated team reminders before each colleague’s birthday and offering a modest twenty-dollar celebration budget. You might see some birthdays celebrated with a traditional cake, Hawaii- themed office decorations, or the hiring of an amateur opera singer off of Craigslist. Sound ridiculous? That’s the point. Helping employees show that they get one another makes them significantly more likely to bond.

The Lessons of Friendship

II. Action Items for Emerging Leaders

All business all the time makes you a weaker employee

We’re more effective at working with our teammates when we’re connecting on a personal level. Workplace friendships don’t happen when you’re buried in a spreadsheet. They emerge in the spaces between work, before and after a team meeting-when you and I accidentally discover that we both love jogging and happen to own the same car. Make time for chance connections. Chatting with the new guy in sales may not feel productive in the moment, but it may turn out to be the most valuable thing you do all day.

If you are struggling with a colleague, find a superordinate goal.

Often in the workplace, we get locked into our own objectives and see others as a barrier. It’s what contributes to the development of turf wars. If you’re dealing with a collaborator who seems to view you as competition, look for areas of common struggle, where you need one another. It’s easier to connect with someone when it’s clear you’re both on the same side and neither one of you can succeed alone.

Recognize that gossip is the fast food of social connection.

Gossip creates intimacy in the short term. But beware: It also weakens your standing in a group. Research shows that despite the immediate enjoyment people get from listening to gossip, frequent gossipers are viewed as less trustworthy, less powerful, and less likable. There’s a Turkish proverb that says, “He who gossips to you, will gossip of you,” and it appears that on some level, people implicitly believe that to be the case. If gossip is your primary means of connecting. It may be time you reconsidered your approach. It might feel like you’re bonding with others, but the damage you’re doing to your reputation makes it harder for your coworkers to view you as a friend.

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