Chapter Blog Spotlight - Who’s In Your Professional Lifeboat? 3 Ways To Get Friends Right At Work

Chapter Blog Spotlight - Who’s In Your Professional Lifeboat? 3 Ways To Get Friends Right At Work

37d9679 Photo from LinkedIn.

By Alia McKee and Tim Walker, Co-Founders of  Lifeboat @GetLifeboat,  cross-posted from YNPNdc.
Your boss — beneath his confident suit — is likely uncertain where he stands with his friends.

Your colleague in fundraising down the hall — social and connected as she may be — is actually craving deeper, more meaningful relationships.

And you’re far from alone if you’ve been nostalgic recently for close pals from years past.

How do we know this? Thanks to The State of Friendship in America Report, 2013 – a study we released at Lifeboat last month that sheds new light on the dire social landscape facing adults across the country.

A few key findings to start:

  • Less than a quarter of Americans say they are truly satisfied with their friendships and almost two-thirds lack confidence in even their closest friends.
  • Generation X’ers and Boomers (those in their prime working years) are hit hardest by the trend, indicating a “mid-life friendship slump.”
  • Most Americans–by more than 2 to 1–would prefer to have deeper friendships than more friends.

It adds up to a national malaise we’re calling the “Friendship Crisis.”  What does this personal situation have to do with the workplace? Lots.

First, friendship is a major dynamic in people’s lives. Nobody just leaves it at home. With the release of our study, we now have a scientifically clear-eyed view of the difficulties adults have really connecting with each other in the digital age. For managers, colleagues, marketers and HR professionals, friendship is incredibly relevant.

Also, you’ve probably heard the conventional management wisdom that suggests friends and work don’t mix, right? Well, we’re not convinced and all our experience tells us collegial friendships are inevitable anyways. In this light, the more productive question to ask is: how do I do it right?


Before we answer that question: why do traditionalists argue against pals at the office in the first place?

They say that mixing work and friendship can blur decision making and make difficult calls more difficult. Some worry that friends in the office can lead to distracting — even inappropriate — behavior. How can someone operate in the best interest of the organization, they ask, if they’re also worried about their BFF? These issues get real for mangers facing such difficult situations as annual reviews — or worse layoffs — involving close friends. All good reasons – they say – to remain socially guarded in our cubicles.


Still, advocates like us for a friend-friendly approach to work suggest this line of thinking is outmoded.

First, with just about everyone spending more time at work — and/or more time on work at home — colleagues can often seem like the best social option. Where else would you find so many people with similar interests, passions and values? And according to our State of Friendship Report 42% of adults say they met at least one of their closest friends at work. The percent rising to 42% for Gen-Xers (age 35-49) and to 50% of Baby Boomers (age 50-69). So work friends can indeed work.

Second, close friendships at work can make you happier with your job. According this a study in the Journal of Business Psychology, workers report higher job satisfaction when they felt they had even the opportunity for friendships at the office. A 2013 survey of 2223 business people across Australia found most planning to stick with their current job — and they cited “good relationship with co-workers” as the major reason (67 percent) above even salary (46 percent).

Third, collegial friends can help you succeed. Leaders need people in their lives who nurture them through the tough times and who challenge them to be their best selves and live up to their dreams and potential. Sometimes it’s only workmates who can truly understand where you are at and offer cogent advice.


With these arguments in mind, here are three strategies we recommend for starting to create your workplace Lifeboat:

Go Deep not Wide

Nurturing quality relationships takes time, emotional energy and cognitive capacity – all of which are limited. Anthropologists suggests that thanks our limited brain capacities, we can only maintain casual social relationships with less than 150 individuals—a principle known as Dunbar’s number. Deep relationships with strong bonds on the other hand, tend to occur in what psychologists refer to as sympathy groups—groups of 10-15 people. And more than 2-to-1 American adults say they would prefer these deeper relationships over more connections.

So we still recommend cultivating a large professional network, but we also suggest investing oneself more deeply and personally with a handful of people you trust — you professional Lifeboat.

Break Inertia: 

You’ve probably noticed how people tend to befriends others similar to themselves. It’s a phenomenon known by social science as “Homophily or “love of the same”. Trouble is much of the reward of friendship come from learning and growth from the different experience of others, something called the “Michelangelo effect.” To help, try mixing up your professional Lifeboat in terms of age, seniority, gender, skills and nationality.

Give 1% More

As young professionals go through life family, work and other demands occupy an increasing amount of time and brain space. Often this takes a toll on time spent with friends. The average American adult spends 4% of their time with friends – down from 30% as teenagers!

Our recommendation here is simply to invest one percent additional time with friends each week (1 hour 30min). It doesn’t have to be big – think an extra phone call, a lunch date, or a quick note for a job well done.


We think of these small changes — choosing your lifeboat, breaking the inertia, giving 1% more — as investments that will pay back dividends. Social scientists are finding friends makes us feel more satisfied, connected, grounded and supported – ready to tackle the professional and personal challenges we face.

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