There are few things left that surprise me; I'm betting it's the same for you. So when I come across something unexpected in doing research for this column, I take pause, especially when it has to do with the vital topics of workplace happiness and success. I then pause further before elevating the word "surprising" into an article's headline -- it has to earn that moniker.
Polling giant Gallup utilizes a 12-question survey to measure employee engagement. One of the twelve leading indicator questions (question number 10) generates tremendous controversy every time it resurfaces in the public eye. In fact, Gallup says it's one of the most controversial questions they've asked in 30 years of employee engagement research. What's the question?
"Do you have a best friend at work?"
Huh? What does that have to do with performance and success at work? Work is work, friends are friends, right?
In fact, when this so-called-predictive question first surfaced from Gallup, the Washington Post asked, "A best friend at work? What is this, high school?" The company has been fielding great skepticism about the question for years, with some companies refusing to buy/administer the 12-question measurement tool if the famed tenth-question isn't omitted.
But Gallup sticks to their guns for one simple reason. Stubbornly, and without bias, the question continues to be a dead-accurate indicator of performance. Jim Harter, Gallup's Chief Scientist for their Workplace and Management Well Being practice, explains: "Something about a deep sense of affiliation with the people in an employee's team drives him to do positive things for the business he otherwise would not do."
The key word here is deep. Why not just ask a question about having friends at work? Why best friends? Harter explains again: "'I have a best friend at work' proved to be the wording best able to discriminate between groups in which friendships are sufficiently supportive and those that have only surface relationships that are unable to withstand adversity."
Ah, so it's about champagne with real friends and real pain for sham friends.
OK, but still, what's the direct connection between great friendships and great performance at work?
Without work friendships, it can be lonely and isolating, which leads to a lack of motivation, energy, and willingness to bring one's whole self to work. Gallup found that only 2 out of 10 respondents said they had a best friend at work, but among those, they were less likely to be looking outside the company for work, they felt more connected and clearer on what was expected of them, they were more likely to take risks leading to innovation, and were less likely to be stressed and exhausted.
Harter adds, "Friends tolerate disagreements better than do those who are not friends. The good feelings friends share make them more likely to cheer each other on. And friends are more committed to the goals of the group and work harder, regardless of the type of task."
It's all making sense now. So what to do with this epiphany? If you're a leader, it's about creating the conditions under which friendships can thrive. Promote open communication and collaboration and promote and participate in opportunities for co-workers to have fun together and to get to know and appreciate one another. Give the team a specific mission that can only be accomplished by that team working together -- it will help them bond and create a shared identity.
As an employee, be conducive to striking up new friendships or strengthening ones in place. Most of it boils down to this: make the effort. Care about your co-workers. Inquire about them. Show compassion when they're hurting and energetically celebrate with them when there's cause to. Spread positive gossip; i.e. looking for opportunities to talk positively about co-workers (especially to their boss).
Out of all the things we can do to accelerate our success at work, there may be nothing that has as many "life-carryover" benefits as forging great co-worker relationships. Being out of corporate for three years now as an entrepreneur, I can tell you those relationships are the only thing I miss about those days gone by. So don't let another day go by in your life without progressing a friendship or two.