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‘Should I Put More Effort Into Making Friends at Work?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I started at my company almost five years ago. I’m married and was pregnant when I started, and though I worked full-time and impressed my boss, I didn’t get along well with many of the other women on my team who were in different life stages and had different work ethics than myself. There was just no chemistry. After having my baby and coming back to the office, my boss gave me a promotion and created a role just for me, managing a team of six.

The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve had the attitude of “I’m here to work, not make friends” and have kept only civil work relationships with most of my co-workers. This has been particularly necessary because I’m managing people; I know that it would be unprofessional of me to show personal preferences for certain people or be too honest about what I really think on some work issues or about what I do outside of work. 

I’ve definitely felt excluded from the cliques and friendly groups and have known for a few years that I’m not well liked. I don’t get invited to lunch or to people’s happy hours, to weddings or events where other co-workers are. People go on vacation and bring back souvenirs for everyone but me. I don’t like it, but it’s not something that keeps me up at night. I do have the respect of and positive work relationships with my boss and other department managers, which I try to think of as more important.

But I’m now questioning whether I should have put more effort into making friends at work. I sometimes feel that my lack of friendship with people I’ve worked with for five years is holding me back from collaboration and general inclusion. I don’t know if it’s too late to change direction. I otherwise like my job and the company I work for, but I do feel lonely sometimes and question whether it would be worth starting fresh somewhere else along with the benefits of maturing my career by moving on to something new and a little more challenging (I’m in my early 30s).

Should I make friends or continue keeping to myself?

I’m curious why you’ve chosen this path because it sounds as if it’s making your life at work a lot less pleasant than it could be!

Sometimes you do end up in a workplace where you don’t have much personal chemistry with any of the people around you … but it sounds as if you made a deliberate decision to avoid having friendly connections with any co-workers, and you’re feeling the effects of that now.

Friendships at work aren’t something you need to avoid! It’s true that, as a manager, the nature of the job means you can’t be true friends with the people you manage — although you can and should have warm, friendly relationships with them, and you can still talk about your weekends and know a bit about one another’s lives. But there’s no reason you can’t have closer relationships with peers and other colleagues who don’t report to you.

I think, though, this might be less about friendship and more about warmth. There’s a really big middle ground between seeking out friendships at work and deliberately avoiding them, and that middle ground is just being pleasant and friendly. You don’t need to hang out with co-workers after hours or go to their houses for dinner, but you can still joke around with them, talk about your cats, dissect the series you’ve all been binge-watching, laugh about this morning’s bonkers meeting, or otherwise just connect with colleagues in an affable way. This middle ground is actually where most people dwell! People often distinguish between “work friends” and “friend friends,” and this is usually what they mean by the former.

There are a ton of benefits to approaching work this way. Most obviously, it will make the hours you spend at work much more pleasant! It’s a quality-of-life boost to enjoy the relationships you have with the people you’re dealing with all day. But it can also make your life easier — and even make your work better. When you have good relationships with co-workers, they’re usually more willing to go out of their way to help you when you need it (beyond the bare minimum of what their job might require, like if you messed something up and needed help getting it fixed quickly rather than just eventually). They’re also likelier to give you the benefit of the doubt more and kick ideas around with you. You might find that people are more responsive, as well as more willing to reach out to you with questions, if they find you approachable. Plus you’ll be more likely to hear information outside of official channels, anything from “That job you were interested in is about to open up again” and “Casey used to work with the new manager, and here’s what she’s like” to “They’re talking about raising the cost of parking passes next quarter.” Stuff like that can be useful to know, and you’ll generally get left out of it if you’re not talking to people informally. It can benefit you in more formal ways too; when people know and like you, you’re more likely to come to mind when they’re thinking of someone to lead a project or recommend for a job or other potential opportunities.

You don’t need to form deep friendships to reap these benefits; simply being warm and friendly and showing a genuine interest in your colleagues as people is enough to provide the social lubricant that will get you there.

Whether or not you can accomplish this at your current company after five years of not reaching out is a trickier question. You probably can if you put genuine effort into it. You’d need to make a point of asking people questions about themselves and their work, taking a moment at the beginning of meetings to inquire about how people are doing, cracking the occasional joke, and generally just injecting more warmth into routine interactions. If you do, you likely can change the relationships you have there one person at a time.

On the other hand, you would get a fresh start if you went somewhere new, especially since you mentioned seeing other advantages like wanting more challenging work. It could indeed be easier to change course without colleagues who at this point probably assume you want to be more or less left alone. Five years is a solid stay, and if you do decide to start fresh somewhere else, there won’t be anything odd about choosing to move on after this amount of time. And the same suggestions for being friendly but not friends would apply in a new workplace.

Either way, I suspect you’ll enjoy work more if you decide it’s okay to connect with the people you encounter there.

Find more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every other Tuesday.

‘Should I Put More Effort Into Making Friends at Work?’