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Do friendships really have value at work?

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

Belonging is recognised by Motivational Maps® through the ‘Friend’ motivator, the desire to belong, to be included, supported and to feel connected. It can extend to actual ‘friendship’ or be broader – but we recognise it through that warm, fuzzy and safe feeling of being ‘home’. This sense of ‘belonging’ can be with one person, a team or, especially in the case of employee-owned businesses like the John Lewis Partnership, a whole organisation.

Friendship though is a double-edged sword. It’s fascinating for Motivational Map® Practitioners to see that ‘Friend’ is often the most important motivator for young people in education, but it tends to become less important as we progress into management. Indeed ‘Friend’ is often the lowest or least important motivator for managers. Why? Because it’s too painful to make crucial decisions when your friends are involved. As a result, we ‘split’ our identity – separating who we are at work from who we are at home. At work we adopt a persona – in the way we dress, the language we use, the way we treat others. Inevitably this creates a disconnect between ‘them’ and ‘us’ – typically between managers and their team, and creates a deep barrier preventing trust.

In many industries, the negative consequences of this are minor because the team’s ‘Friend’ motivator may also be low. But just imagine a team who don’t want to belong together. What positive benefits are they missing out on? In other industries, especially call centres and internal sales teams, ‘Friend’ tends to be a top motivator. Does this play a role in the high employee turnover rate of call centres of 30 – 45% per year, double that of other industries?

“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong.” - N. R. Narayana Murthy

By understanding more about belonging, we are better equipped to wield that double-edged sword with care, reaping significant benefits for both our people and our profits.

Some businesses actively seek to create belonging because it benefits everyone. If we create a sense of belonging and meaningful relationships at work, it can reduce stress, allow for more honest communication, and ultimately reduce employee illness and turnover. Research has even found that the opportunity to form bonds at work increases job satisfaction, commitment, and involvement. Those benefits are largely internal, but by creating happier and more motivated employees they will work harder and stay longer, thus further improving on the customer experience. They are more likely to go the extra mile for a business if they feel truly part of it. Belonging also leads to trust, and Stephen E Covey says “The way we solve problems and get things done is with and through people. And nothing is more impactful on people, their work, and their performance, than trust.”

The benefits of belonging in the workplace are surprisingly straightforward, and thankfully so are the ways of creating it. Even if you aren’t trying to create friendships, you should aim to encourage people to form stronger working bonds than simply ‘transactional’ functioning which results in short-term thinking and one-upmanship. Margaret Heffernan once said “the cell phone has become the adult's transitional object, replacing the toddler's teddy bear for comfort and a sense of belonging”, and businesses should strive to be part of the solution to this rather than facilitating it.

Moving beyond this, encouraging and empowering people to work collaboratively will strengthen your business’ ability to tackle projects and hurdles quickly and effectively. Done well, the outcomes will not only be more robust and better implemented, but will strengthen skills, confidence, and that sense of belonging.

Finally, and most simply, make sure to listen to everyone in the business. Richard Branson once said, “A good leader should be a good listener”, and there is no better way to create a sense of belonging than by genuinely listening to someone, taking their thoughts on board, and helping them to feel that they belong in the business rather than simply working for it.

Creating a sense of belonging takes time and may feel unproductive, but as we say at Aspirin Business, “You have to go slow to go fast”. Give it time!

Not everyone is highly driven by belonging, but it is arguably in our genes to seek some sense of belonging and community; we have been social animals for thousands of years. With communities becoming less common, businesses can now step up to value, listen, and involve employees more to benefit everyone. It can of course be hard to understand how happy people are with their level of belonging, but it isn’t impossible. Using a tool such as Motivational Maps tool can help to measure and understand the motivation of your people and teams, enabling you to have great conversations and create reward and recognition structure and culture that delivers a win-win outcome for your people and your profits.

Jan Feeley
Jan Feeley, MSc

Assistant Psychological Therapist by day, coach by evening and weekend! I'm a firm believer in collaborative working both clinically and more generally, and am keen to use people's expertise about themselves to make meaningful and energising changes in their life. Passionate about mental health, wellbeing, and self-care; determined to make a difference. Connect with me on LinkedIn

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