Having a close friend at work can make you happier, more productive and less likely to quit. But office friendships can have downsides, too.
What should you do if you’ve got too emotionally involved?
How do you make sure that your relationship doesn’t affect your ability to get your job done? What sort of psychological boundaries should you put up? How do you establish them in a way that doesn’t hurt your colleague’s feelings?
Empathy is an important component of emotional intelligence and, thus an asset in the workplace. It helps you connect with others in a meaningful way. But you don’t want to “let your emotions take over” and become so involved in a work friendship that it depletes your energy and productivity, said Susan David, the author of Emotional Agility.
Annie McKee, the author of How to Be Happy at Work, agreed. “It feels good to be needed but it can become a burden,” she says. “It goes way beyond empathy if you’re spending too much time helping someone figure out their problems or you get upset, worried or maybe even scared about getting it right.”
If you feel you and your colleague have got in too deep, here’s what you can to do:
Watch for the signs
When you’re neglecting your work to tend to an office friend, it is a sign that something needs to change. Other red flags include feeling like “you’re on an emotional roller-coaster” or like “you’re more attached to the other person and their experiences than your own”, said McKee.
To assess whether your relationship is a healthy one, ask yourself a few questions: Is the relationship bringing me closer to the growth I want in my career? Are we both putting in the same amount of effort? Do I feel comfortable expressing thoughts and feelings that differ from my friend’s? Can I see multiple sides to the problem the person is experiencing or just their own perspective?
Unfortunately, said David, “there’s no clear line in the sand of what’s okay and what’s not”. But if you answer “no” to any of these questions, consider making changes.
Don’t blame the other person
If you conclude that the friendship isn’t serving you, it is normal to get angry or annoyed. “There’s an instinct to blame the other person and think, ‘You drove me to this.’ But that’s a disempowering position to take,” said David. Instead, think about your own role in creating the unhealthy dynamic.
McKee suggested reflecting on what initially drew you to the person. Was it their personality? A work challenge you faced together? A hobby you share? That will give you useful information to disentangle your current relationship and will help you avoid similar situations in the future.
Don’t cut them off entirely
In most cases, there’s no need to abruptly end the relationship. You don’t want to go “from being their best friend to refusing to having lunch with them because you’re at the end of your rope”, said David. “You might be shutting down an important connection.”
McKee agreed: “People think to change an unhealthy dynamic, you need to break it. But you don’t have to. Slight shifts can actually move the relationship in the right direction without making anyone feel bad.”
Change the tone of the conversation
It is tough to tell a friend that you want to spend less time with them.
“Sometimes the relationship is healthy enough for you to be that direct, but it’s rare,” she said. “If they’re self-aware and capable of having a deeply reflective conversation, you can dip your toe in the water and attempt to have the conversation.” But, in most scenarios, your strategy should be to “gradually shift” the way you speak with your friend. For example, “try to pick communication channels that are leaner”, McKee said. “If you’re spending a lot of time together in person, replace those interactions with phone calls. If you’re spending more time on video or phone, replace that with a couple of emails.”
You want to create some physical distance and “tone down the intensity” of your interactions,” said David. Whenever possible, “re-emphasise your professional relationship” and talk about the importance of work.
Narrow the scope of your interactions
Decide where you want to draw the line. “Think about the problems your colleague shares with you and carve out one or two of them that you want to continue to help with,” said McKee. Then “enable (the person) to take action” on the others. “Connect them with someone who can help, said David. She suggested saying something along the lines of, “I feel like we’ve been going in circles on this. You may benefit from seeing a coach.”
It will take time to find a new balance. Your friend might not let you go willingly. But don’t get sucked back in just because they push. If they ask you why you’re not available for lunch, McKee suggested saying something along the lines of: “I miss our conversations too. But you know what I’m up against at work. I’ve really got to focus.” Or use the opportunity to direct the person to the topic you want to discuss by saying: “Why don’t we get together and talk about X?”
If they make it hard, remind yourself that the short-term unpleasantness of drawing boundaries is less costly than the long-term drain on your energy.
Principles to remember
• Watch out for signs that you’re putting too much time or energy into your friendship and that it is hurting your productivity or performance;
• Shift how you interact so that you’re spending less time communicating with the person;
• Offer to connect them with someone who can help them with their problems.
• Place the blame on the other person; chances are you had a role in creating the unhealthy dynamic;
• Cut them off entirely. That’s often not feasible or pleasant;
• Give in if they try to pull you back in; you need to hold strong to the boundaries you’ve set.
This article first appeared in Harvard Business Review.