How close should you get to your colleague?

When we spend so much time at work, it's only natural to get friendly with our co-workers. But be careful about crossing the line...

Colleagues discussing

Workplaces are about work. At your workplace, you and your co-workers work together to fill a need—to complete specific tasks so the company is efficient. Your workplace should not be treated as a social hall or worse, high school. The company deserves your best attention to the job at hand. Friendliness with co-workers does improve productivity; too much socialising, however, can be detrimental not only to work productivity, but also to the company morale and your career.

Closeness with colleagues

Drawing the line

It is only natural to develop personal relationships at work, because many of us spend more time with people at work than with our own families. Sometimes we feel the need to share personal information like some of the major events in our life with people at work. We share positive events like getting promoted, buying a new home or car, or getting married. But often we tend to share details of our lives that really have no place in the work setting like financial information, health issues, worries, and other personal details. We need to be careful about whom we share information with. This seems like simple advice and yet problems often arise because we end up trusting the wrong person with private information.

When we work closely with someone day in and day out, we often feel the need to share personal information with him or her. And sometimes we forget to be careful and fail to use common sense. When this happens, it is not about building our friendships—it is about getting our emotional needs met. At that point, it is important to realise that we need to try therapy. A therapist's chair is the appropriate place to share the intimate details of our lives, not the workplace. A therapy is the 'safe' place to open up so that we may understand ourselves better. Sometimes family members, very close friends, and/or our spiritual leader can fulfil this need. Workplace is not for getting our emotional needs met and work colleagues are not our therapists.

Caution is key

It is important to evaluate our office friendships as well as the information we share, so that sharing does not become a source of embarrassment or a liability to our employment. The nature of workplace relationships and the information we have shared can sometimes cross boundaries causing collateral problems. Revealing too much about your private life can make others see you differently. Some unscrupulous people can—and do—use that information for their own purposes. Colleagues may not care about your privacy and share the information indiscriminately with others, or may try to hurt or sabotage your position at the workplace. Even bosses take all the information they know about you into account when making hiring, firing or promotion decisions. Your personal details could seriously affect the outcome of important decisions about you and your career.

How to choose friends at work

To determine that, first we need to understand how we develop friendships. We develop friendships based on four criteria.

  1. Proximity: Most friendships start because of the place the friends share. Many friendships are so superficial that the only criteria for continued interactions are close proximity such as same workplace, school, or neighbourhood.
  2. Shared activities: Shared activities such as hobbies or sports are a more invested type of friendship. Work can be in this category because of the specificity of our particular job or industry and because some companies encourage team building through these activities.
  3. Specific interests: Specific interests such as history, religion, music begin to take friendships down a path of commonality that prompts more closeness or depth of friendship. These interests serve to tell us a lot about the inner being of the friend that we are getting closer to.
  4. Values: Shared values develop the deepest forms of friendships because they support our worldview. The deepest and most rewarding friendships have a combination of these criteria. When we evaluate our friendships at work with these criteria, it helps us choose people whom we can trust.

Depending on the depth of the relationship we can also decide which bits of personal information we can share with them. We certainly wouldn't share our financial information with a neighbour we hardly know. So why would we share personal information with those at work who have not met the standards for a more intimate and trusting friendship? It is important to be discriminate about relationships. We have to decide our friends at the workplace.

Trust: Do unto others

Trust is key. When you trust indiscriminately, then you are bound to be hurt and disappointed. Trust only those who have proved themselves to be trustworthy. How do we develop that trust? Trust goes both ways. Are you trustworthy? Be the kind of person you would want to trust. Especially at work, avoid gossip and only say things about a person that you would be willing to say to that person's face. Do not share secrets or break the confidence of someone who has trusted you. Only through time and successive experiences can we build a reputation of trustworthiness. Now turn the perspective around and ask yourself, "Has this person I am about to share my information with, earned my trust?"

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