The psychology of when friendships go bad in the workplace

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When I worked at my first job after college, I was still learning about myself, my ideals and my realities. I was learning about what it meant to be an employee. I was a bit arrogant as I was young and that is what young individuals oftentimes do in the workplace. However, if you ever met my former colleagues you would be arrogant as well.  As such, I hung out with my fellow arrogant, mischievous colleagues. We were young and obnoxious together. We each slowly ended up leaving that office within 3-5 years (a rather long time actually); with me being the first to get my act together and hitting the proverbial road. I can’t imagine having stayed on much longer. Nor could I ever imagine any one of my fellow arrogant, obnoxious colleagues getting promoted and becoming my boss. To me, that surely would have been a a sign of an impending apocalypse.

I have been quite fortunate that I have never worked in a place where a workplace friend ended up becoming my boss.  However, not many others are so fortunate. I have born witness to ridiculous fights and declared betrayals when one friend became the other’s boss.  Psychologically, such an act wrecks havoc on a supposed workplace friendship, laying bare the fault lines that will shake individuals to their core.  Such a friendship-shattering act illustrates that more often than not the tie that binds, and gives way to a false sense of camaraderie, is the avowed us versus them sentiment. With the “them” being the bosses- the workplace boogeyman.  You can see so clearly how workplace friends go from “I got your back” to “you’re not the boss of me” even when that is actually true.

As I have noted, I have not experienced that workplace friendship shift necessarily. One time I did come close to that. I threw my hat into the ring to be considered for a position because I felt that I rather be riddled with having the “x” target on my back (as naturally occurs to bosses) than be ruled by someone I most definitely knew was not the brightest bulb in the room or neighborhood, for that matter. That is just it for most other people as well. When their friend becomes the boss, they know where their boss has hid the bodies and they know some of their predispositions. When you talk smack about management together and then one becomes part of that infrastructure things inevitably  change. Many say that things change because power corrupts. Sure, we have plenty historical examples of the corrupt nature of power. However, it is not as simple to just say power corrupts and thus the friendship is broken. Perception of a difference in status, as well as changed expectations, can expose those friendship fault lines. When I became an “uber” boss, the hardest part of then supervising my former peer was the annual review. There was no coming back from that moment. Sitting across from her noting her strengths but also areas for improvement, was like getting a root canal. The clock couldn’t tick away any faster.

Not everyone that has a friend that becomes a boss is readily upset. Many, in such a situation, can see and will experience a benefit as a result of the friendship. That is to be expected. As a friend you know not only where the bodies are buried but you also know each other’s strengths.  The downside of having access to that type of information can lead to an over-reliance on friends in the workplace to get things done. When that happens the friend becomes a pariah in the workplace being seen as a “favorite” and getting special access to the boss.  Hanging out as a friend in your boss’ office can bring you as much workplace animosity as privileges. Workplace friendships are a very tricky human phenomenon to navigate.

However, when friendships go bad in the workplace, such negativity ripples throughout the office.  Many years back, I witnessed for the first time the devolution of a workplace friendship. There was a team dinner whereupon one individual’s promotion was surprisingly announced. One by one everyone congratulated this individual, except for one. His “best” friend turned up her nose, winced, looked down at her plate and mumbled something. To this day, I am not sure whether she was saying a mealtime prayer, offering her congratulations or placing a hex on us all. Considering how the rest of that trip and year went, I’d venture to guess it was a hex. She was devastated. In that point in time, she knew their friendship would change. She felt he would change. She knew deep down in her bones power would corrupt his beautiful spirit. She was proven right, in her eyes, when he had to write her up several times for insubordination. Thereafter, it became a battle of wills. She was never the same again and neither was their friendship. The workplace became a daily battlefield and an ever-changing set of extreme tactics to win some undeclared war where co-workers became unwitting (and willing, at times) catapults and armored tanks.

In another instance, a big position became available where two friends were equally qualified and would bring differing great strengths. Admittedly, one was way nicer than the other which was actually a bit of a disadvantage in that office politics are brutal and you need a very strong spine to not bend under the relentless pressure. The nice one really wanted the position and the other abdicated, supposedly in the name of friendship.  There was a part where the not-so-nice one was just burnt out and the position just would have taken her to a place where she was not ready to go. Yet, she stated that she wanted to let her workplace friend go for it.  And go for it, the nice one did. She did so with great zest, passion and dedication. That dedication, however, was the beginning of the end of that friendship. That dedication to do what was needed, to ensure that the product remained of great value, led to her being seen as a betrayer.  Instead of helping her friend accomplish these new, demanding goals, she frowned upon it wondering why her former nice friend was now doing the work of and acting as a manager. The mental shift couldn’t happen and they seemed to be stuck in reverse with no way of moving forward. The nice one was now labeled mean even though she was bending over backwards to get things done and succeed.

The act of becoming a boss unnerves and rattles many. The problem isn’t having a friend for a boss. The problem is that shift. Many wonder how can they now complain about the insensitive bosses when their friend (ostensibly a good person otherwise why were they friends) is now part of that echelon.  Jared Leto said recently that “fame doesn’t change you, it changes everyone around you.” I am not 100% in agreement that fame doesn’t change a person. There are life comforts that change as a result of fame. However, I completely agree that fame changes the friend perimeter. The same can be said of workplace friends and promotions.