- The focus on making friends at work seems to be tragically misguided.
- Instead of making friends, choose boundaries that limit workplace drama and enable growth.
- Creating meaningful relationships that boost your career is a creative choice.
Common knowledge may lead us to believe that making friends at work is a good thing.  It might not be. Recent studies have shown that relationships with co-workers are now one of the least important factors in job satisfaction.  On top of that, making friends at work often keeps us from what is really important—building a network of co-workers that brings value, staying away from the day-to-day drama that can be significant, and finally making clear delineations between real friends and co-workers.
I've hired over 1,000 people in my career—a number that my publisher made me count before they bound my book to print. In all those hires I have seen people make countless poor choices by making friends at work, only to be disappointed time and time again when these friendships didn’t work out the way they thought they would.
Here are three creative things you can do to keep yourself from falling into the trap of making friends at work:
1. Don’t Get Caught in the Drama
Your workplace is not a reality show where everyone needs to build alliances to get off the island and win the million-dollar prize. The point of work is not to build secret alliances that collude to achieve certain off-topic goals.
Many of us have seen a group of work friends form a pact together to sway policy in one way or another or hold up meetings to fulfill their own agenda. What ends up happening is that, often, people get caught up in the drama and start to hate their jobs, burn out, and then get disappointed when their so-called friends don’t stick up for them in a meeting—or say that certain thing they want them to say to make them look better. As you can see already, it gets messy. So what can we do?
Instead of joining these cliques that have some specific agenda or vendetta to drive, focus on finding creative and innovative ways to execute your job to drive value. Instead of falling into the drama at work which can be so tempting , find ways to contribute to the conversation and ride above the day-to-day drama.
So many folks I have mentored over the years seem to have difficulty with this. We tell ourselves things like, “Shelly got promoted last year and she does far less than I do! What is going on?” Or, “My boss is less qualified than me—why am I not the one who is getting ahead?” Inevitably, this leads down the road of making alliances with work friends to drive a favorable narrative about us—and it almost always implodes.
Stop the temptation to jump into the drama and instead contribute meaningfully to what you do best. This is the foolproof method for getting ahead. It may take a while, but in the long run, it is the only viable option for long-term sustainable growth.
2. Keep Clear Boundaries Between Real Friends and Co-Workers
Real friends are people you can be yourself around and with whom you can show up being who you truly are—no editing needed. They are folks with whom you have developed a deep relationship over time that is mutual and flows in two ways. You are there for them and they are there for you. There is trust built.
At work, this relationship becomes very, very complex. Instead of being a true friendship, what ends up happening is that the socio-economic realities of your workplace come into play—and most often that poisons the well. When money is involved, it clouds any potential friendship. It makes the lines so blurry between real and contrived friendships that the waters become too murky to make clear and meaningful relationships. Is that a real friend, or do they want something from me that benefits them? Who can you really trust at work and what happens if they violate your trust? Is my boss really my friend or are they just trying to get me to work harder/longer/faster?
If, instead, we keep clear boundaries at work, we never fall into the trap of worrying about whom to trust and who has our best interest in mind. It prevents us from transferring our best interests to anyone else simply because we assume they are our friends. Why give that amazing power to someone else at work only to be disappointed?
Worse yet, people will often confuse co-workers with family, falling into the trap of having a “work mom,” “work dad,” or even a “work husband” or “work wife.” This can lead to a number of disastrous results that are well-documented, as family is not the same as work, and confusing the two has long-lasting ramifications that can stifle career success and lead to unethical behaviour.  Keeping boundaries clear and your work life separate from your private life will help to alleviate this potential downfall and keep you focused on what really matters: the work.
3. Build Your Network
The main difference between a professional relationship at work and a personal friendship at work is our expectations. We expect, and should expect, a whole heck of a lot from our friends. Our professional relationships should live by a very different set of expectations. The expectations are far more muted and limited. They consist of mutual respect, less pessimism, and a willingness to collaborate wholeheartedly to get projects done. They do not include sharing what your dreams and aspirations are or where you plan on meeting the love of your life.
Professional relationships can be very satisfying and deeply meaningful. At first glance, they may seem superficial, but a deeper look can reveal a sense of satisfaction that professional relationships can bring when we take friendship out of the equation. For instance, research has shown that daily check-ins and chats with co-workers can boost well-being. 
So how do we build more professional relationships and fewer friendships at work? We can start by being more positive toward the work and each other. Pessimism is the killer of all creativity and innovation. It’s a nasty virus to have circulating at work. We can invest in mutual respect for each other and the roles we play. Just because you may think that accounting is not as important as sales or shipping, that doesn’t mean the accounting department is not a valued and important member of the team, worthy of respect.
The latest research shows that only 11 percent of workers ranked relationships with co-workers as a top factor in job satisfaction.  It might be worth it to focus on making better professional choices rather than getting caught up in the latest drama of the moment or office gossip. Finally, making more professional relationships at work can not only lead to a better sense of well-being—it can also make you happier at work.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Blue Planet Studio/Shutterstock
 Mann, A. (2018). Why We Need Best Friends at Work. Gallup
 Westfall, B. (2022). Friends at Work? Today’s Employees Aren’t Interested. Capterra Company Culture Survey
 Edwards, J, McCleary, K. (2022). Bridge the Gap: Breakthrough Communication Tools to Transform Work Relationships From Challenging to Collaborative. (McGraw Hill, 2022)
 Vriend, T., Said, R., Janssen, O., Jordan, J. (2020). The Dark Side of Relational Leadership: Positive and Negative Reciprocity as Fundamental Drivers of Follower’s Intended Pro-leader and Pro-self Unethical Behavior. Frontiers in Psychology.
 Garr, S., Mehrotra, P. (2022). Performance Management for Hybrid Work. Redthread Research