They say you should never mix business and pleasure but in reality many of us find that we become friends with the people who we work with. No wonder, when you consider the hours spent together and the deep bonds formed through collaboration and sharing the highs and lows of the job.
A new study in Personnel Psychology is among the first to examine the effects on job performance of having more “multiplex relationships” – colleagues you work with directly who are also your friends outside of work. The researchers say these relationships are “a mixed blessing”, but on balance they found that the more of them people had, the better their work performance as judged by their supervisors.
Jessica Methot and her colleagues first surveyed 301 staff at a large insurance company in southeastern United States. These staff, who had varied roles across the firm, provided a list of 10 colleagues they worked with closely in pursuit of their responsibilities and 10 staff who they considered to be friends and who they socialised with outside of work. The more overlap there was between a person’s two lists, the more multiplex relationships they had. The participants also completed measures of emotional exhaustion and work-related positive emotions. Four weeks later, the participants’ supervisors were contacted and rated the participants’ job performance.
The more multiplex relationships that participants had, the better their job performance. What’s more, this was explained in part by the fact that such relationships were associated with experiencing more positive work-related emotions, like feeling excited and proud. In short, being friends with more of colleagues appeared to be good for staff and for their employer.
However, the picture gets a little more complicated because the researchers dug deeper and found that multiplex relationships were also associated with more emotional exhaustion – presumably because of the effort involved in maintaining more complex relationships and of providing support to friends. In turn, emotional exhaustion was related to poorer work performance, hence the researchers describing workplace friendships as a mixed blessing. Overall though, the benefits to work performance outweighed the costs.
The second study was similar but involved 182 workers at three shops and six restaurants. This time the participants also completed measures of the emotional support, trust, felt obligation, and “maintenance difficulty” (the effort of sustaining and juggling relationships) experienced in their work relationships. The results were similar, with more multiplex relationships again correlating with superior work performance – and this time the association was explained in part by feelings of greater trust towards colleagues who are also friends. But once more, although the overall association was positive, there were signs that these relationships can be a mixed blessing – the more multiplex relationships a person had, the more they tended to report having difficulties maintaining their relationships, which in turn was related to poorer job performance.
We need to be aware these studies were correlational so they haven’t demonstrated that work friendships causes better job performance, although that is certainly a plausible interpretation, especially in light of the mediating factors that the researchers identified. Given that having more friends at work appears to be beneficial overall, Methot and her colleagues recommended that “organisations should focus on practices that promote friendship among coworkers who can interact for work-related purposes” such as introducing friendly competition between staff, or implementing social intranet systems “that simultaneously allow employees to collaborate and share task information while getting to know each other on a social level”.
Methot, J., Lepine, J., Podsakoff, N., & Christian, J. (2016). Are Workplace Friendships a Mixed Blessing? Exploring Tradeoffs of Multiplex Relationships and their Associations with Job Performance Personnel Psychology, 69 (2), 311-355 DOI: 10.1111/peps.12109
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