They Aren’t Really Your Friends

Most career-driven managers spend a tremendous amount of their lives at work.  When working, most also form relationships with superiors, peers, and subordinates, often calling them “friendships.”

 In reality, most of these people aren't really your friends.  I've come to call the connections “relationships of convenience,” and you should be on your guard for potential undermining, credit stealing, political maneuvering, and outright betrayal.

 You've got to talk to somebody…

 Most people begin work relationships tentatively – casual conversations at the water cooler or over lunch – and ease their way into a “friendship.”  The relationships normally deepen through mutual disclosure – you offer an observation, opinion, or position that might expose you (in the beginning, only to a small degree) and the other person offers something similar in response.

 Over time as the relationship grows it might lead to a real friendship.  More likely, however, it becomes some strange form of mutual reliance/alliance with a dose of “mutually assured destruction” or MAD (those of you old enough will remember this from the cold war).  In other words, it morphs into a political device rather than a true friendship.  The problem I always had was figuring out how to tell the difference.

 To separate real from faux, it helps to understand normal friendships.  True friendships involve a commitment and loyalty to the other person regardless of political convenience (or inconvenience).  The problem is, you might not be able to tell this doesn’t exist until a supposed “friend” betrays you.

 I once became enraged by the behavior of my boss, and dropped by the office of one of my “friend” peers to bend his ear on the subject.  I thought of this particular manager and I shared a bond, and that it was safe to get the anger off my chest – heck, I thought he might even have useful advice or observations.

 Instead, within a few minutes of our conversation he paid a visit to my boss and disgorged the contents of our discussion.

 What I failed to realize was we really weren't friends.  While we agreed on a lot of things, and we had cooperated on several projects, there hadn't been enough mutual disclosure to protect me (no MAD) much less for there to be anything beyond a superficial relationship.  Finding myself in this uncomfortable position was my own fault – had I thought carefully about him, I would have realized our relationship consisted of only a temporary alliance.

 Find your real friends by subtracting your utility

 In reality, most work relationships aren’t pure politically-driven alliances based on mutual usefulness, and they aren’t pure friendships, either.  The two aspects become entwined in a difficult-to-separate jumble.  The only way I’ve found to really get to the bottom of these composite relationships is when the “business” side of it disappears.  Under those circumstances (someone quits, transfers, retires, or gets fired) real friendships have (some) staying power.  “Relationships of convenience” tend to sputter and die in a relatively short time as the utility in the departing party rapidly goes to zero.

 Think back to all those people that have departed from your employer – people you may have called “friend” when they were working in the company.  How many of these do you maintain contact with?  How may did you forget about soon afterward they left because they were no longer a factor in your daily life?  Or were no longer useful?

 I worked more than a decade for one of my employers and was then abruptly fired.  In the wake of my departure, one of the most painful realizations I dealt with was how few people that I once called “friend” seemed to want to continue our “friendship.”  Note to self – those that didn’t, weren’t really friends.

 Unfortunately, most of those supposed “friends” seemed to quickly forget that I existed.  I’m sure they moved on to new “relationships of convenience” in the ever-changing mosaic of the company’s political battlefield.

 The identities of the ones that did maintain contact, and there were only a few, sometimes surprised me.  A few were clearly opportunistic, feeling there was still some benefit they could milk from the relationship on my way out.  Most of the rest I’d been chummy with, but they weren’t necessarily the individuals I felt closest to while working at the company.

 Only the stress of my departure on the relationship was enough to determine who my real friends were.

 Of wolves, sheep, and clothing…

 Which brings me to my final point – most business “friendships” appear to have an element of deception in them.  The deception could be simply pretending to find the interests of the other person compelling, or it could be more nefarious – politically manipulating and maneuvering, or even worse.

 Being a polite audience for someone else’s soliloquies is harmless enough, but it’s a fine line between that and gathering information useful for less than honorable purposes (gossip fodder, alliance building, credit theft, etc.).

 And often times it is nearly impossible to spot the difference.

 In a long-ago deal, the party on the opposite side of the table from me brought along his “best friend” to the negotiations.  This was a subordinate he had worked with for many years, a man the owner of the business was going to “cut in” for a portion of the deal’s proceeds.  They seemed to be quite close, their families participating in outings together, and there being a apparently high level of mutual disclosure.

 But that was just on the surface.  Beneath the subordinate’s façade was festering resentment, an affair with another employee, and secret negotiations with one of our competitors.  When the deal was completed, the subordinate betrayed his “friend,” loaning himself a substantial amount of the company’s cash and then going into business in partnership with our mutual competitor.  He then set about trying to hire away almost all the key employees of the firm.

 It was the biggest betrayal I’ve ever personally witnessed in my business career.

 The most disturbing aspect – to the business owner as well as the rest of the outside world, the friendship between the two men seemed very deep and went well beyond work.  It was, however, all an act.


 You might find true friendships at work, but most of your relationships there won’t qualify.  Be cautious in building work friendships, and don’t be surprised if many of them don’t survive the end of your utility to one another.  Expect betrayal, but hope you won’t personally have to face it.  And above all else, make sure you build and maintain friendships outside of the company – if and when you ever leave you’ll probably need them.  33.2

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Shown here is the cover of NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS my non-fiction primer on the nature of politics in large corporations, and the management of your career in such an environment.  This is my best selling book.  Chocked full of practical advice, I've had many managers and executives say they wished they'd read it early in their career.

My books are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.  Most were inspired by real events.