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Executives often overlook importance of workplace friendships

Betty leads a high-level team of well-educated research scientists. As a group, the team tends to be introspective and often they work in their separate offices on their own. Most days you can hear a pin drop, it is so quiet. She comments that because you can’t hear “thinking,” if you couldn’t see them at their desks or catch them on their way out each night, you wouldn’t know they were there.
Betty’s team results are good but she thinks they could be better. The team is not producing as many innovative product designs as she thinks they could, given their experience and their outstanding credentials. She wasn’t too surprised to discover when her team took an employee engagement survey administered by the Gallup Organization’s Workplace Research Practice that a number of her team members do not feel fully engaged in their work. What surprised her was the possible solution.
The Gallup survey captures employees’ responses to their workplace on 12 key questions that have been proven to correlate positively with employee engagement. These questions were first publicized by Gallup in 1999 in their groundbreaking book on management entitled “First, Break All the Rules.”
Gallup defines engagement as a combination of exemplary employee loyalty and productivity. Truly engaged employees are the cornerstone of any organization’s productivity and success. Engaged employees are more energized, more satisfied and less stressed at both work and home than average employees. They rarely miss work for illness or for personal or family problems. They are the employees that make us look good as leaders. They make our companies successful.
The Gallup employee engagement survey has been administered to almost 5 million employees in approximately 500,000 work groups in over 400 different companies around the world. Positive survey results strongly correlate to high customer satisfaction, profitability, productivity and employee retention. This is the type of evidence-based approach to managing an employee work force that, as leaders, we need to pay attention to.
The Gallup question that generates the most buzz by far when we work with leadership teams is Q10: “Do I have a best friend at work?” As with all 12 Gallup questions, this question generates a strong positive response in highly productive, engaged employees, but not in average or below-average employees.
This “best friend at work” question tends to catch most executives off guard. With their drive for profitability, productivity and accountability, the implications of work friendships are not even on their horizon. Gallup’s data certainly backs this up; only 18 percent of employees report they work for organizations that provide opportunities for them to develop friendships at work. Despite this, about 30 percent of the work force manages to acquire best friends at work on their own.
As leaders we had better be hoping that is happening in our companies, based on additional research and analysis on the power of strong workplace friendships. Tom Rath, a Gallup consultant and social scientist, looked further into the payoffs from these friendships in his book “Vital Friends.”
Through his research, Rath uncovered a number of ways that best friends correlate with high productivity. Here are just a few of his key findings based on Gallup’s very extensive research:
–Employees with at least one close work friendship are seven times more likely to be actively engaged in their work. Also, they tend to be more innovative, more engaged with customers, more productive and more safety-conscious.
–Close friendships boost employee satisfaction by at least 50 percent and people with three close friends at work are 46 percent more likely to report that they are “extremely” satisfied with their work and 88 percent more likely to express satisfaction with their overall life.
–Employees are three times as likely to form close personal relationships when the layout of their work team’s physical work environment promotes interaction. Only 30 percent of the employees Gallup surveyed report working in such work environments.
Rath and the other Gallup researchers found that the term “best friend” had to be used to better differentiate the engaged, highly productive employees from average or even poor performers. When they used the term “friend” or even “good friend,” employees across the productivity spectrum would respond similarly. It is the truly engaged employees that respond to the “best friend” and crave the loyalty and support that that kind of friendship offers.
Another observation that Rath makes is that there are some friendships that can create problems for companies. He calls these “bellyache” friends-employees whose relationships are built around complaining about the company. According to Gallup’s research, bellyache friendships are generally found in companies with long histories of hostile work environments. Even in these companies, the existence of strong, positive employee relationships can more than offset the negative effects of bellyache friendships.
When Betty got the results from the Gallup survey, she noticed how few of her team felt they had a best friend at work. As she reviewed the results, one of her goals became to see if that score could be raised in the coming year.
With the help of her team she identified the types of activities that they enjoyed participating in together. She increased the frequency of team research reviews and problem-solving sessions, scheduling some of them over a meal so her team could also spend some less formal time together. She also reconfigured their workspace, establishing an informal gathering area with a large, comfortable meeting table, a coffee machine, a water bubbler and a rack full of up-to-date research magazines.
One year later, when the next Gallup employee engagement survey was administered, her team had a sizable overall jump in several engagement-related factors as well as a significant increase in positive responses to the Gallup Q10 question. She also found this correlated with an upsurge in innovative ideas from the team and a decrease in turnover.
Do you have a best friend at work? Do your employees have strong friendships at work? Do you currently do anything to encourage and enrich those friendships?
Such seemingly simple questions can produce so many complex responses, opinions and emotions among organizational leaders. Whatever your answers, there is solid research that underscores the positive power of workplace friendships and how they can help companies flourish.
Libby Bakken is an independent consultant for Career Development Services Inc. She specializes in corporate consulting in areas related to career management, employee development and work life. For more information about CDS, call (585) 244-0765. To send questions or comments about this column, send an e-mail to [email protected]

06/20/2008 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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