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Workplace friendships encourage productivity, employee retention, job satisfaction, team cohesion and so much more, including personal growth and emotional support. But these business friendships can be difficult to manage.
Stresses and strains at work can undermine bonds.
As friendship is a role that comes with clear obligations to help out, be open and honest, share confidences, and provide special treatment, many of these obligations conflict with the governing principles of workplace interactions that emphasise efficiency and rationality.
This is particularly apparent when an individual has two sets of friends who are not friends with each other. This is a surprisingly common situation at work. Both sets still demand time, attention, and even favouritism from the person in the middle, known as the friendship broker.
These expectations put pressure on the broker who must respond with whatever personality resources he or she has available. Some people are able to call upon personality resources that are well adapted to the goal of maintaining trust among their separate and potentially conflicting sets of friends.
Other people find themselves unable to maintain trust as they move between different cliques.
What my research looked at
My new research, carried out at UCL School of Management in collaboration with Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, looks at personality traits and the risk of friendships clashing with job roles. We found that personalities must align with networks in order to be successful.
Having used questionnaires to collect data concerning over 1000 friendship pairs at a critical-care unit of a hospital and at a two-year business school master’s degree program, this paper has been accepted and is now awaiting publication in the Academy of Management Journal.
Across these two quite different samples, we found support for the core idea that brokers are trusted by their friends if their personality fits with the demands of the brokerage role.
With my co-author, Stefano Tasselli, we discovered that brokers maintain trust if they exhibit low blirtatiousness, i.e., they are relatively slow to speak what’s on their mind, and high self-monitoring, i.e., they are adept at presenting themselves appropriately to quite different groups of people.
Successful brokers overcome the appearance of ambiguous loyalties to two different groups and manage the possible disruption of trust in order to help transfer knowledge and prompt innovation in the best interests of the company. They are insiders in multiple cliques managing relations between them.
They can’t be seen to neglect one group in favour of another as they successfully navigate situations that might cause tension, such as keeping information secret due to policy even though a friend would be interested in it.
But this diplomatic personality style – somewhat reserved, but able to present different faces to different people – is not likely to preserve trust if the individual is playing a role in just a single clique rather than dancing between the demands of different cliques.
After all, not everyone plays a broker at work...
Indeed, the personality style best adapted to the situation of interacting at work within a single group of friends is quite different: a talkative, true-to-one’s-self forthrightness is more likely to maintain trust.
Friendship brokers who flexibly – as well as guardedly – manage their individuality can be an efficient link between cliques; but for those people whose friends are all within a single clique, it is actually self-revelation and authenticity that maintains the trust of colleagues.
Before this research revealed the impact of individual personalities, prior work has dealt with brokerage between cliques as a structural dilemma – with the process of bridging different friendship groups at work being seen as an organisational problem.
These findings instead contribute to the developing science of personality and networks to emphasise how some personality characteristics match the demands of the brokerage role and preserve trust in the eyes of others.
This had never been looked at before, but when business friendships have proved to be so valuable, any factor that undermines them should be investigated so it can be tackled or avoided entirely.
Rewarding power brokers?
So on a managerial level, individuals who operate as effective brokers should be acknowledged and rewarded for their role in transferring knowledge and encouraging coordination across a company. Shout-outs at departmental meetings and commendations during performance evaluations, for example, can be reassuring to those playing the role of broker.
On an individual level, while research has shown that behavioural changes repeated over time can contribute to enduring personality change, we need to be aware of our own personalities and what roles fit us best. Are we liberated or paralysed by pressure in our working lives?
After all, no one wants to risk their job because they can’t juggle different friends.
Professor of Management in the UCL School of Management and the current associate editor of Administrative Science Quarterly.