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After working with the same team day in, day out, you get to know your co-workers very well. You even start calling a few of them your friends, maybe even your good friends. It’s like high school, but it’s not: your co-workers are not your true friends. They’re co-workers with benefits.

There’s a difference between your friends at home and the co-workers you deem as friends at your office. This difference isn’t good or bad, it’s just the way it is. Don’t get the idea that we’re cynics, though. We of all people understand that, whether because of time constraints or the difficulty of making new friends, sometimes your only source of friendship are the co-workers at your job. All we want you to understand is the difference between a strong work relationship and your friendship with your friends outside of work.

Amanda Rosenberg, the 27-year-old marketing manager of the Google Glass project who’s allegedly dating Google co-founder Sergey Brin, can’t seem to see this difference. If Brin ever dumps Rosenberg, (apologies for sounding like Star Weekly or People here) or she gets upset with him and decides to fall back on her “good friends” at work, who do you think they‘ll side with? Yep, you got it: the one who makes their paychecks happen.

Imagine this: you get into a brawl on the street. Your best buddy, the one you knew since high school, sees you and jumps into the fray and defends you no questions asked, no matter who’s right in the conflict. Now let’s say you get into an argument with your supervisor at work. Your co-worker, who sits in the cubicle next to yours and with whom you sometimes have a friendly lunch, knows you’re in the right, and can easily testify on your behalf. Instead, he keeps his mouth shut and you either get a warning or you get fired.

If the second scenario has the potential to hurt your feelings, it shouldn’t.

The co-worker who’s going to get fired on your behalf is not only self-defeating, he’s not thinking about his own life at all. The people who work around you, who are good at what they do, are ultimately going to take care of themselves. Their priority is to preserve their jobs and get paid, to support themselves and to support their families. They’re not always going to be there for you.

Since we’re so fond of examples, here is another one that describes why office friendships can be detrimental: imagine that you’re supervising someone you’re really close with. He’s good at what he does, but occasionally he screws up. You sometimes hold back from saying anything to him because you don’t want tension in your friendship. This eventually bites you in the ass: you’re not able to be an effective leader since you’re afraid of disciplining him, and your hesitance to act gets in the way of his career growth since he doesn’t learn from his mistakes. And ultimately, your group’s performance suffers, making it more likely that neither of you have the careers you want.

All this being said, co-worker friendships are not impossible. In fact, they’re easy when you understand the proper guidelines for developing relationships with your office mates:

  1. Don’t get angry if they don’t stick up for you; set realistic expectations: “But I have great friends at work!” you utter indignantly. OK, but do you know how to have even better friends at work? Set your expectations. Their ultimate responsibility at the end of the day is not to you, but to themselves and their jobs. You may go to bat for a co-worker, but you have to understand that they will not always stick up for you. It’s nothing personal—they may have kids, rent, all kinds of responsibilities that they have to prioritize over being a “true” office friend. Don’t get angry; set your expectations. You will have much more fulfilling relationships at work if you understand this concept.
  2. Geographically limit where you hang out: Keep your usual hangout place close to the office. This way, you won’t have to go out of your way to meet up with co-workers just to have them cancel on you, you won’t get angry if they’re late, and you won’t get as annoyed if they bring someone you don’t like. When you set up an evening somewhere far away or inconvenient, it’s like you’re testing your co-workers to see if they’re your true friends. They have every right to cancel, but if they do, you feel angry and trapped. You may get away with testing your real friends outside of work, but doing this with your co-workers will only lead to volatility.
  3. Don’t be afraid to develop strong work relationships: We get it. You want to be liked and accepted. You don’t want to be left out. Yes, it’s important to understand that co-worker relationships have limitations, but this doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly outside of work. If your co-workers are going out on the weekends getting crazy and YOLOing, don’t get jealous or upset. Be the Dalai Lama on this one, especially if you’ve already set your expectations—rethink the situation. They may be wondering why you haven’t asked them to go out on the weekend yet. The point is, you don’t know what’s going on in their heads, or their lives. They have the exact same spectrum of emotions, problems, and fears as you do. So take initiative and invite them over somewhere. If nobody comes, ask them again! It’s a risky move, but you’re taking up the responsibility and making the first move—a sure sign of a leader.

Take care of yourself, be wonderful, be gentle, be amazing and be the great person you are now. Just remember that there is a difference between your coworkers (with benefits) and your friends outside of work.       



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