Degree In Sight

Work relationships

University of Washington, St. Louis, graduate student Adam Putnam tries to get to know the undergraduate students he oversees in his adviser's memory lab. Being friendly — sharing lunch, playing ping-pong, telling jokes — makes coming to work more enjoyable for him and his colleagues, but it can also lead to problems, he's found.

His first semester he was so relaxed about deadlines with his undergraduates he had to adjust some of his research plans because of delays. That experience taught him a lesson: There are times when you can wear your "friend" hat, but other times when you need to be the boss, he says. The following semester Putnam allowed lab assistants to choose their own deadlines, but all were before a certain drop-dead date.

"I gave them the power to decide, but once they did, I told them that I would hold them to it," he says.

Putnam is wise to try to walk the line between supervisor and friend — research shows that workplace friendships can increase job satisfaction, productivity and job commitment while decreasing stress and turnover. However, research also suggests that some workplace friendships can cause problems. For example, people who form friendships to advance their career don't work well in teams, while more genuine relationships — those based on common interests and trust — tend to improve workplace morale, according to research by Hilla Dotan, PhD, an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University. The findings come from a study published in 2009 in the Academy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings, in which she surveyed 1,057 employees from an array of U.S. businesses including department stores, financial firms and chemical companies.

"If we learn to manage [workplace friendships] and understand them and bring them to be a strategic part of decision-making, we can use them to everyone's benefit; both employees' and organizations'" says Dotan.

Friendships' Flaws

Three decades of research have converged on the finding that workplace friendships generally improve productivity and morale. That's certainly been the case for University of Wisconsin clinical psychology graduate student Emily Schweigert, who says that having close friends in her lab has been essential to her success in graduate school. They provide practical support by sharing knowledge and data, but the biggest benefit, says Schweigert, "is the emotional and moral support that we provide each other. We go through the same struggles and understand each others' challenges and hurdles."

But workplace friendships can have drawbacks, according to research by organizational psychologist Rachel Morrison, PhD, of the Auckland University of Technology. In one study published in 2007 in the University of Auckland Business Review, Morrison surveyed 445 workers representing a large variety of industries. When prompted to describe examples of how a friendly workplace relationship made their work more difficult, more than 200 respondents shared stories of workplace friendships blurring boundaries, distracting employees and hampering productivity.

Morrison's study didn't examine why some friendships caused problems and others didn't, but work by University of Arizona business professor Patricia Sias, PhD, suggests that conflicting expectations may be an issue.

In a 2004 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Sias interviewed employees about workplace friendships gone bad and what caused the rifts. She found that a primary factor was when a co-worker failed to live up to "friendly" expectations, such as a supervisor-friend given a surprisingly negative evaluation or not getting support for an opinion or idea.

"We expect friends to always support us and favor us, but at work we need to be objective," says Sias.

The best way to avoid conflict among workplace friends is by making your expectations clear and applying the rules equally to everyone, she says. To be sure that you don't unintentionally favor your friends, explain the reasoning behind big or controversial decisions to everyone you supervise, she says. "If it's a good decision, and your friendship is functional, your friend might be disappointed but will understand," she says.

Relationships Built on Honesty

Just as it's easy to tell your best friend she has spinach in her teeth, Louisiana Tech University graduate student Christopher Castille finds it easier to critique the undergraduates in his industrial/organizational psychology lab once he's established a friendly rapport. When one such undergrad, for example, sent a strongly worded email to a professor who passed him over for an internship, Castille didn't hesitate to tell the student to apologize.

"If there is a friendly foundation, cracking down on them is easier," says Castille. "They don't see you as a threat but as a mentor with their best interest in mind."

Sias agrees that workplace friends communicate better with one another. In a 2005 study she published in Communications Studies, she surveyed 190 employees at a large public university about the quality of work-related information employees receive, the quality of supervisor-subordinate and peer co-worker relationships, job satisfaction and job commitment. She found that co-workers share work-related information more quickly and more accurately the more collegial their relationships, whether they were talking with peers, supervisors or subordinates. In addition, the better the workplace relationships, the better informed people were about workplace issues and the more satisfied they were with their jobs.

Given these findings, grad students should feel free to make friends in their research labs, experts say, but they should be thoughtful about the boundaries they establish. Grad school is, after all, a great place to learn to balance multiple roles.

It's also a good time to learn how to get things done without ruling with a heavy fist, says Dotan. "You never know who these people will be in the future," she says.

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.