(By Jacquelyn Smith)
“It’s one thing to show genuine concern for fellow employees. It’s another to divulge your entire private life to a coworker. Building friendly relationships creates a fertile ground for teamwork, and is far better than a sterile workplace that spawns competitiveness and mistrust. That atmosphere engenders more creativity, as people innovate most when they feel supported and the work culture is upbeat and fun.”
Wondering whether, where and how often you should socialize with coworkers? Weighing the pros and cons of getting to know them on a personal level? Thinking about how it might help (or hurt) your career? I spoke with four workplace experts to get some answers.
“Socializing with your coworkers is essential for your career,” says Alexander Kjerulf, an international author and speaker on happiness at work. “If you’re not able to relate to your coworkers as human beings and build positive relationships, your career will suffer. Socializing and getting to know them as people will help you to communicate better, trust each other more and work better together. Also, employees who have positive workplace relationships are happier at work (in fact, good workplace relationships are one of the most important sources of workplace happiness) and we know that people who are happy at work are more productive, more creative and more successful overall.”
Dr. Maynard Brusman, a consulting psychologist and executive coach, says coworker socializing is prevalent in most offices. “The modern workplace has become a community center, or a ‘home away from home’ where people get many of their social needs met. Neuroscience research supports the idea that our brains are hard wired to connect with others. We spend so much of our time at work, that it’s natural that we develop relationships in the workplace.”
Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job, agrees. She says most coworkers socialize at some level—but a lot depends on the size of company, the corporate culture and the department. “In small companies, there is a lot less formality and the interaction level high – so there can be more socializing in that smaller team environment. At larger companies, the atmosphere is often more conservative, and there’s an unspoken culture of less social engagement. Some business leaders foster a more humanistic, team-oriented workplace and others want the environment to be strictly business. The former approach is always more motivational. The key is finding the happy medium where employees are friendly, courteous and supportive, but not enmeshed in each other’s lives.”
According to Brusman, collaborating with colleagues socially can be “very politically savvy [in terms of] building trust and support.” It can help team members get to know each other on a personal level, ultimately increasing engagement, he says. “And it can help when influencing and persuading others is needed to achieve common goals.” Socializing can also be a great way to develop empathy and create a high performance culture among people who are happy to work together on significant goals, he adds. “People can further develop their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills by socializing with others.”
Taylor believes it is beneficial for colleagues to socialize, to a certain degree. “It’s one thing to show genuine concern for fellow employees. It’s another to divulge your entire private life to a coworker. Building friendly relationships creates a fertile ground for teamwork, and is far better than a sterile workplace that spawns competitiveness and mistrust. That atmosphere engenders more creativity, as people innovate most when they feel supported and the work culture is upbeat and fun.”
How and where should coworkers socialize?
Kjerulf says it should happen both inside and outside the office–but it’s most important to be able to socialize in the workplace, since that’s where employees spend the most time with one another. “There should always be time for a coffee break where you don’t talk about work, or a fun lunch break where you can laugh and relax with coworkers,” he says. “Also, small office celebrations for birthdays or team wins are a great way to socialize.”
Cali Williams Yost, a flexible workplace strategist and author of Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, says as a rule of thumb, you should only socialize with coworkers in situations where you are most likely to showcase your best behaviors. “A friend of mine is so passionate about the New York Rangers that he has a hard time controlling his emotions when they play. If they are losing, he can get visibly upset, so he knows he can’t ever attend Rangers games with his coworkers because they might not understand his intense reaction. But he has no trouble attending any other sporting event with his team.”
Some of the best ways to socialize with coworkers are through events or activities that relate directly to the company, Taylor says. “Whether it’s a company picnic, outside meeting, philanthropic, company-sponsored event or business lunch, all these activities allow you to build ‘smart’ camaraderie. They make your work interactions more enjoyable, which in turn boosts productivity: a win-win for you and the company.”
Staying out late over too many drinks, heavy duty partying and office romances are not usually career-enhancing moves, she adds. “You might well be in a business setting that’s social, such as a holiday party or at a send off for a colleague, but still, your best behavior counts – and can count against you. And with the prevalence of smart phones, you don’t want your guzzling contest or attempt at pole dancing to be a hit video circulating on Monday morning – or appearing on Facebook.”
Kjerulf says “anything play-like is good and anything that gets you laughing together is great–but it doesn’t have to be an event. Just talking to others and taking a genuine interest in their life is a great way to socialize.”
But remember that socializing can also be detrimental to your career—if you “do it wrong,” he says.
“Avoid playing favorites; don’t be fake; and don’t let it cut into your work time too much. You can’t spend all day at the water cooler.”
Brusman says maintaining appropriate roles and boundaries are very important. And Williams Yost agrees. “It can be detrimental to socialize with coworkers if they become your only friends,” she says. “Be sure to carve out a space in your life for people with whom you can 100% be yourself without having to think twice about possible professional ramifications.”
Socializing with colleagues who are not equal peers can be even more problematic, Taylor explains. “While it’s only sensible to be kind and sincerely interested in the lives of your staff, being very close personally can be difficult for an employee if a boss becomes suddenly distant or conversely, if the employee assumes that he and the manager now share equal authority. If a subordinate who is a personal friend underperforms, the manager is now in more of a quandary.”
Another way in which socializing with coworkers can be detrimental: Doing it in excess.
So, how much is too much?
It may depend on your situation and workplace culture—but “if you haven’t spent enough time in the past few weeks or months with the friends in your life who have no connection to work and just know ‘you for you,’ that could be a signal you might be socializing too much with coworkers,” Williams Yost says.
Taylor believes the litmus test should be, “Does this enhance productivity?” “If you can draw the distinction between being a supportive, friendly colleague versus sharing personal and private details about your life, you’re probably on the right path. Better to have your very closest friends outside the office, where you can speak freely and not worry that work related issues could come between the two of you.”
But there are exceptions, of course. “Some people are able to build lifelong friendships from work, and have moved to new companies together. Certainly a number of people have met their lifetime partners at the office. But in these cases of very close alliances, professionalism, mutual respect and a primary concern for the larger good of the company are all prevalent.”
Brusman says leadership is a lot about displaying good judgment. “All things in moderation is usually good advice,” he says. “Mindfulness or self-awareness is key to being sensitive to other people and what motivates them. The focus of the workplace is to get work done and execute the company strategy aligned with its mission, vision and values.”
The right balance of socializing in a specific culture can enhance the mission, and support happy employees who are passionate about their work and fully engaged. Too much socializing can be counter-productive and adversely affect some employees, he adds.
“People want to feel that they’re building something together at work, and that requires a trusting, friendly environment,” Taylor says. “You’ll get much better career satisfaction if you are sociable, approachable and supportive. That said, it’s usually best to err on the side of being kind and professional versus seeking out your closest, inner circle friends at work.”
Brusman concludes: “We live in an evolving world where connecting with others is a social imperative for flourishing, happiness and well-being. Social media demonstrates that our brains are hardwired to live and work with others for the common good. However, some people are more private or take more time to develop trust and open up. Respect and be tolerant of fellow employees who have different views, levels of comfort and desires. The workplace is a happier and more productive place when we display kindness and compassion to one another.”
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”