Everyone loves friends, it’s true. But is a friend someone you usually sit in the same room with for 40+ hours a week, every single week? Unlikely. Are they someone you can’t take a break from when they’re getting on your nerves, because they’re sitting in your line of vision all day? Probs not. Are they someone who could end up being your boss someday? No, that would be weird.
If these scenarios sound like a recipe for tension, that’s because they are.
Investing the same level of intimacy and trust in a workmate that you would in a genuine friendship can get complicated very quickly. That’s why, no matter how much you like your colleagues, maintaining a healthy distance from them is often crucial for a happy work life. “Unlike other relationships, we might end up competing with our ‘friend’ for a promotion, a bonus, or management attention,” clinical psychologist Louise Morrow says. “Sometimes, our ‘friend’ becomes our boss, or vice versa.”
Having said all that, there’s no doubt getting along with people at work makes for a more pleasant 9 to 5 life. Morrow acknowledges that feeling connected to others at work has been associated with increased job satisfaction, productivity, and a sense of well-being. And being well-liked can even help you climb the ranks more quickly, if that’s your agenda.
So how do you strike a healthy balance somewhere between getting embroiled in unnecessary drama and isolating yourself? The key to keeping it #professional at work is simple: boundaries. If this sounds intimidating, rest assured you can set them without offending anyone.Here’s how:
Work events can be a fun excuse to cut loose and spend time relaxing with your coworkers. However “it’s important not to forget that there is a line between friendship and professionalism that shouldn’t be crossed,” says HR expert Claire Hunt. The minute booze gets involved, there’s potential for things to get messy. A couple of drinks and lols is one thing, but getting shitfaced and saying or doing things you may regret on Monday morning is not chill.
One way around this is to socialize selectively i.e. don’t be that person who attends every single event and stays til the bitter end. Or perhaps give yourself a limit at the start of the night as to what time you plan on leaving. Pace yourself by having a glass of water between drinks. We all know that person who loves to wait for an audience, then remind you of that stupid thing you did when you were drunk. While it may be easy to laugh off in a social context, the fallout could make daily life hellishly awkward at the workplace. Sandra at reception doesn’t need to hear you kissed Dave from I.T., then spewed in his mouth.
When in doubt, keep your trap shut
Consciously choosing how much personal info to offer colleagues is crucial. It’s natural to share personal anecdotes when getting to know someone—that’s part of how we bond and form any kind of relationship. However, the lines can get blurry if you choose to share the kind of thing you’d be embarrassed if the whole office knew. Taking a leap of faith and trusting someone to keep your private stories to themselves can be a beautiful thing in the right context. In the wrong context, it could potentially harm your career.
Of course, most people don’t go out of their way to be hurtful. It’s just a sad fact that many well-intentioned folks can’t resist a bit of juicy gossip, especially when they want to gain status at the water cooler or stave off the boredom of yet another long day at the office.
Be clear on your priorities
This advice is based on a healthy workplace, but the sad reality is that many are less than ideal. If you find yourself working somewhere toxic, it can still be tempting to form friendships because, as Morrow puts it, “the need to belong is a strong human motivation.” But in these environments, it’s especially important to maintain boundaries.
It may help to look in the mirror and get real on your priorities. After all, if you don’t know your own limits, you can’t expect anyone else to know them. Is it more important for you to be liked or to be true to yourself? Are you there to progress professionally or to fit in? “We go to work to earn money to pay our mortgages, support our families, improve our lifestyles, and extend our careers, and it’s rare that workplace friendships will override that,” Morrow says. Once you know where your values lie, it’s far easier to keep it friendly without finding yourself in a situation you regret.
Reap the rewards
There’s no doubt doing this kind of work takes a lot of effort, but one of the priceless payoffs lies in finding your voice. Boundaries define us and help us get closer to being the person we aspire to be. Enforcing them doesn’t have to be an exercise in being a hardass, either. You can do it as quietly and gracefully as you like. The key is to be consistent and to follow through. By establishing yourself as an employee with integrity, there’s every chance you’ll naturally distinguish yourself which, in the right workplace, should have positive repercussions for your career.
Of course, there’s always the chance you’ll genuinely meet someone special at work. In that case, no matter how tight your boundaries are, time will reveal if they’re worth taking it out of the office with.