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How to Navigate Friendships at Work

As you invest more and more time into finding your dream career and professional calling, it’s inevitable that the lines between business and pleasure blur, often out of necessity. A tough day at the office may end with drinks and gossip with a trusted co-worker, or you find yourself responding to emails on your BlackBerry from your yoga mat before class begins.

As the lines blur, so too do traditional professional relationships. Rehashing your weekend with coworkers on a Monday morning has become the norm, as has bringing your “work friend” out with the girls on a Friday night.

Chances are you’re already out there networking, getting business cards, and delivering your elevator pitch to anyone and everyone who may get some value out of it. As you start to build connections and talk about potential business partnerships, job opportunities, or industry happenings, it’s inevitable that you’ll meet some awesome women, build familiarity, and ultimately become friends.

With all the emphasis on building and maintaining a strong network, it’s clear that business has, in many ways, become a relationship economy, where value is often measured by who you know and what you can give to others. But when is it time to pump the breaks a bit on casual work relationships? We’ve all been told to avoid workplace romances, but what about work friendships — can they become traps to avoid too?

Work, Life, and “The Friendship Trap”

Say that at a networking event you meet another woman around your age who works in the same industry. You start chatting and realize that both of your companies could partner to build an offering that would be completely new and unique. Not to mention, she’s carrying the bag you’ve been coveting, so in between scheming about teaming up, you discover your shared love of vintage accessories, travel, and Game of Thrones. You make plans to meet for coffee next week to discuss your idea, then meet up again the week after that and again the next, and pretty soon you’re texting each other on Sunday nights to rehash the newest episode of GOT.

Fast-forward a couple months: you’re ready to present the idea to your respective bosses. Everything is ready except for one tiny detail — and the two of you can’t seem to reach an agreement. While you don’t want to be overly harsh and come off as pushy, you feel very strongly that it needs to be done one way, and your business-partner-turned-friend feels her solution is the best.

The stakes are high for not upsetting your new friend. After all, not only do you need your business partner, but you’ve planned to go shopping this weekend and you’d hate for it to be weird. So you let it slide, still sure that your idea was really the better way to do things and harboring just the tiniest amount of resentment that she didn’t at least meet you halfway.

With this, you’ve found yourself stuck in a friendship trap. You’re forced to confront personal issues in the context of a professional relationship, which makes difficult for any business to be productive and fulfilling, and not to mention causes you double the anxiety.

Now what?

This is where relationships in a professional setting can get tricky, and the friendship trap becomes real. These situations can make you feel terrible, and you may be left wondering why it’s gotten you so upset.

It may be due to a concept known as an “interdependent self-schema.” This means that we can be prone to filtering the world and our own sense of worthiness through the lens of the relationships. The stronger and more numerous our bonds with other people are, the better we feel about ourselves. So if something goes wrong in a relationship that crisscrosses the professional and personal spheres, it can do both external and internal damage.

Dodging the “Friendship Trap” Quicksand

It’s as important as ever to build a strong network and surround yourself with people who can open new doors. It’s also essential that you steer clear of the friendship trap. It can create problems when the rubber meets the road on actually executing joint business dealings.

In the end, it’s really a matter of defining your boundaries. This means:

  • Draw the line. As soon as you feel a work friendship blossoming, gently but firmly make it clear that growing relationships that will help your career is your top priority at the moment. Sticking to this will make it easier for you to put your foot down when it comes to any negotiation or tough decision-making down the line.
  • Keep it professional. You may find that it’s easier to limit purely social contact with this person. For example, follow a rule of thumb that you’ll only go out for drinks after you’ve spent time in a professional context, instead of inviting her out to a dinner with just your college friends.
  • The more the merrier. Suggest other connections you have whom you think she’d like to get to know. Similarly, ask her to introduce you to a few contacts of her own. This will make it easier to keep the relationship centered on business.
  • Know what friends are for. If you do find yourself in the friendship trap, keep in mind that a real friend respects you and will not turn her back if you speak up in disagreement. If your work friend reacts otherwise, then it’s cause to question how much she really cares about and values you. Separate your definition of a true friend from that of an acquaintance to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with the right people who will support your growth.

While making new friends is exciting and fun, throwing the professional component into the mix can add a layer of complexity. Understand how the friendship trap happens and why it’s so easy to fall into. This should help prepare you when you start to find yourself with a new work/real life bestie. Implementing these tips will help you define the relationship on your terms and keep it functioning at an optimal level for both of you.

How to Navigate Friendships at Work

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Melody Wilding, LMSW is a performance coach, licensed social worker, and has a Masters from Columbia. She helps established and rising managers and executives advance in their careers. Her clients work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP, and Deloitte. She also helps entrepreneurs take bold steps to grow their businesses. Melody has helped over 10,000 smart, self-aware people like you. Her coaching gives you actionable strategies to reach your goals. You get concrete steps to overcome the complex struggles of success. Melody loves arming ambitious people with tools and tactics to boost their confidence. She can teach you skills for assertiveness and influence. Her specialties include better managing your emotions at work. Melody also teaches Human Behavior at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. She writes about psychology and careers for Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and more. Click here and grab the FREE COURSE to go from insecure to unstoppable confidence 5 DAYS TO FREEDOM FROM SELF-DOUBT..

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APA Reference
Wilding, M. (2018). How to Navigate Friendships at Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 12 Apr 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.