Workplace friendships are a mixed bag

New research by PetSmart Chair in Business Leadership Jeff LePine explores the ties between multiplex work relationships and job performance.

As much as we love our families, it’s our co-workers with whom we often spend the most time. And that familiarity — along with the shared challenges and celebrations — breeds friendships. In fact, almost one-third of employees report having a best friend at work, according to a recent Gallup study.

Workplace relationships can be complicated because, well, they involve people. But they also are important to both our happiness and our job performance: Employees who have work friends report being more productive, engaged, and satisfied.

But there’s a difference between a friend you grab a drink with after work a couple of times a year and a friend whose work is intertwined with yours. These multiplex relationships — multifaceted relationships that superimpose friendship with work-focused interactions — are what interested Jeff LePine, PetSmart Chair in Business Leadership and professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

He and co-authors Jessica Methot of Rutgers University, Nathan Podsakoff of the University of Arizona, and Jessica Siegel Christian of the University of North Carolina looked at the positive and negative associations of multiplex relationships, and their impact on job performance, in a study published in the journal Personnel Psychology.  

After reviewing existing studies of workplace relationships, LePine and his colleagues decided that they wanted to disentangle the idea of how different types of friendships affect work outcomes.

“Other studies of workplace relationships didn’t separate pure friendships from friendships with people who you work with and whose interactions are essential to your job,” LePine explains. Most research on workplace relationships either focused on friendships or “instrumental” work-related interaction, but this study ignored the reality that workplace relationships often include both elements. No one considered how multiplex workplace friendships might influence effectiveness at work in ways that are unique about relationships that are purely friendship or instrumental.

Are friendships good business?

The research team set out to explore the effect these multiplex relationships might have on job performance. They started by gathering data from 168 employees and their supervisors of a large insurance company in the southeastern U.S. The company actively encourages friendships among co-workers with volunteer service and corporate wellness events, as well as a fluid job structure that provides the opportunity to work with many different employees.

Participants were asked to complete an online survey to help assess their network of workplace relationships. They had been invited to identify by name up to 10 co-workers with whom they had instrumental (work only) relationships and 10 colleagues with whom they were friends. The study looked at the overlapping ties to determine their network of multiplex relationships and then asked respondents to rate a series of statements about their emotional experiences at work. The study also asked the employees’ direct supervisors to rate their performance in job-related tasks.   

Just like other types of relationships, multiplex relationships require a lot of give and take. And as a result, the researchers found that they can be a mixed blessing with both positive and adverse effects. Multiplex relationships foster positive emotions because they offer emotional support, reliable and candid personal feedback, help with career strategizing, and ongoing confirmation of each other’s competence and potential.

Additionally, when you have shared experience and trust with a coworker, you start to speak the same language, which makes problem-solving, information processing, and making connections between concepts quicker and easier.

“These relationships involve supportiveness and trust,” LePine says, by fostering cooperation rather than competition.

But the study also showed that multiplex relationships increase emotional exhaustion, which in turn, can hinder performance. Why is this? Multiplex relationships have the potential for conflict and instill a sense of obligation, and so maintaining these types of relationships requires a lot of extra effort and other personal resources.

The results showed that “multiplex, workplace friendship network size has significant direct, indirect, and total effects on task performance,” and, the bigger your network, the more difficult it is to maintain. 

The good, the bad, and the complicated

To dig deeper, LePine and his team conducted a second study to look at the specific mechanisms behind multiplex relationships — both positive (emotional support and trust) and negative ( the real effort to maintain and felt obligations or indebtedness).

“The trust and emotional support you get from these relationships is good, but maintaining them can be stressful,” LePine says.

At work, for example, you might be busy and focused on an important task at hand, but may have to “act” in a friendly manner during an interaction to maintain the positive relationship. Keeping a smile on your face when you know you need to focus on something else can be exhausting. Mulitplex relationships may also create feelings of obligation, which can be draining as well. For example, LePine says, if a work friend does a favor for you, you feel like you have to pay them back. And if you owe a lot of people, it can really sap your resources.

To test this theory, the study surveyed 182 workers at restaurants and retail stores with questions about the four specific mechanisms, and then followed up by asking the workers’ direct supervisors to provide ratings of the workers’ job performance.

The team found that “multiplex workplace friendships uniquely functioned through trust to impact job performance, creating a counterbalance to the difficulty involved in maintaining them.”

On the upside, employees with more robust multiplex networks had more resources at their disposal for support, information, and communication.

On the downside, those with the most work friends had the potential to experience feelings of conflict about which role to prioritize in specific situations. For example, keeping work information confidential can conflict with the open and honest communication that friends share. And, if two colleagues who are friends are both up for a promotion and only one gets it, both employees can struggle with how to feel and act.

Nurturing connections

Open office seating plans. After-work happy hours. Social networks. There are many strategies companies employ to encourage workplace relationships. But based on findings from these two studies, are they focused on the right kind of relationships?

“A lot of organizations encourage people to get together and develop friendships,” LePine says. “But if those people are not going to work together directly, that friendship is not necessarily good for the organization.”

It’s not necessarily bad — after all, friendship bonds between people may enhance positive emotions and may reduce the chance that they quit — but they do not appear to have a positive effect on work productivity or job performance.

Multiplex workplace friendships are a unique type of relationship. They should be encouraged for their positive benefits, but also monitored to assess and mitigate the negative effects of exhaustion and maintenance difficulty.

To help foster these informal networks, employers can leverage cross-functional team structures, computer-based company intranets, and work-based gamification tied directly to task work, such as incentivized competitions for sales or transparent performance measurement tools.

Other strategies could be as simple as starting each meeting by asking members to share a personal detail. This can be especially effective for cross-functional teams who don’t work together regularly.

In a virtual office, LePine suggests that it may be worthwhile to connect employees in a way that allows them to develop friendships based on an exchange of personal information or periodic in-person team meetings.

And managers can play a key role in helping employees assess and maintain their networks. Most employees think of their coworkers as colleagues or friends, not as “multiplex relationships.” Supervisors can help raise their awareness about the benefits and detriments of these types of friendships, point out signs of emotional exhaustion, and advise and intervene if help is needed.