Researchers Study Consequences Of Work-Based Friendships
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. I'm sitting in the studio with NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. And things are a little awkward in here. I'm not going to lie.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: (Laughter).
GREENE: Shankar, you have come to talk about what appears to be the negative consequences of workplace friendships. I am not sure how I should not be taking that personally.
VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Well, you shouldn't be taking it personally, David, because I didn't think of the study because of our friendship.
GREENE: Oh good, good, good - good to know.
VEDANTAM: There's new research showing that friendships can be both good and bad in the workplace.
GREENE: OK. Either one, so it could be good.
VEDANTAM: So the positive side, you know, they provide us with emotional support. They can make work fun. In fact, it can even help with productivity and efficiency. But they also do have downsides. I was speaking with Jessica Methot at Rutgers University. She and her colleagues Jeffery Lepine, Nathan Podsakoff and Jessica Christian recently conducted an analysis of friendships at work among workers in different settings - insurance companies, restaurants, retail settings.
She found that people who had more friendships at work were often rated by their supervisors as being more productive. So there was a correlation between those two things. But there was one big problem with having all those friends - more interruptions.
JESSICA METHOT: So if we think about the people who we're friends with that work, they're much more likely to come and knock on our door or come to our cubicle, start to talk to us about things that aren't necessarily related to work. And these cause interruptions. And they draw our attention away from the work that we're doing.
GREENE: Very interesting. Shankar, how do you think the Philadelphia Eagles are going to do this year?
VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Can we finish doing what we're...
GREENE: I'm so sorry.
VEDANTAM: ...Doing right here, David?
GREENE: Yes, please carry on, carry on.
VEDANTAM: Well, many employees themselves report that these relationships are a mixed blessing in terms of emotions.
METHOT: We want to invest our time in maintaining that friendship, in reciprocating their support, in making sure that we resolve any potential misunderstandings. And in that way, we really just become stretched to repay these obligations. And so we were hearing people just becoming really drained.
GREENE: Shankar, this is, like, really bad news. I mean, you're like our resident therapist.
GREENE: I feel like (laughter) - I feel like I can come to you with problems. But this is suggesting I can't because I'd be distracting you.
VEDANTAM: This might actually be a subtle hint, David.
GREENE: Here's a third problem that Methot and her colleagues find. They also noticed that sometimes workers report tensions because their friends are also people with whom they're competing for positions in the workplace.
METHOT: We think about friendships as being people who we trust, who we can be vulnerable to, who provide emotional support for us. But these are people we're potentially going up for promotions against. These are people who we certainly compare ourselves very directly to. And so it opens us up to these paradoxes that we don't necessarily think about as being associated with friendships.
VEDANTAM: You know, David, some of this meshes with earlier work by a psychologist named Abraham Tesser. In a series of experiments, Tesser found that when people are close to another person but they're involved in the same kinds of activities, this can sometimes make the success of one person painful to the other person.
You start to ask yourself, why didn't I get that promotion? Now, when this person is also a close friend, you now feel doubly torn because on the one hand, you feel happy for your friend. And simultaneously, you feel envious of your friend.
GREENE: Interesting. I mean, joking aside, I mean, you know, there are companies that think a lot about whether there can be romantic relationships among employees. I mean, maybe there's an argument that they should be at least thinking about the benefits and - and downsides of close friendships in the workplace.
VEDANTAM: That's right. We think of friendships as being an unalloyed good. And I think this research is suggesting that it might have at least some downsides.
GREENE: All right, hopefully not a downside in this room right now.
GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always.
VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.
GREENE: That's Shankar Vedantam - friend of mine, colleague. He regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And you can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. And you can also follow this program, @NPRGreene, @NPRMontagne, @NPRInskeep and @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.