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How to Navigate the Murky Waters of Workplace Friendships: Wisdom from Adam Smith and Aristotle


“Is not mistaking relationships for what they are not — that is being blind to their ambiguity — arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure?”

“A condition of friendship, is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in his beautiful meditation on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love. “As soon as a friend attempts to control a friend, the friendship ceases to exist.” This is why one of the greatest challenges to any friendship is the emergence of a power dynamic, especially when it is perceived by one or both parties as uneven or unfair. That’s precisely what British journalist and Church-of-England-priest-turned-atheist Mark Vernon explores in a chapter of The Meaning of Friendship (public library).

Vernon, who echoes Rilke’s memorable words and notes that “the value of asking about friendship lies in the asking, not necessarily in coming to any incontestable conclusions,” argues that one of the defining characteristics of friendship is its inherent ambiguity — unlike social institutions of belonging like marriage or the workplace, it doesn’t operate by clear social norms or contractually defined roles, it comes with “no predetermined instructions for assembly or project for growth.” In fact, it can’t even be automatically derived from within these other social contracts — a marriage, Vernon notes, may or may not foster true friendship, and even more so a workplace. He laments:

Is not mistaking relationships for what they are not — that is being blind to their ambiguity — arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure? … The corollary of friendship’s ambiguity is that it is packed with promise and strewn with perils.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

That ambiguity gets especially perilous, Vernon argues, at work, where our relationships with colleagues may take the guise of friendship but are ultimately shaped by other forces — forces that often have an implicit power dynamic. It’s a modern predicament especially poignant in our culture where “productivity often counts for more than perspicacity, the professional touch more than the personal touch, being praised more than being praiseworthy.” What this produces is an air of “pseudo-intimacy” between colleagues, whose relationships, at the very core, are premised on their usefulness to one another. That utilitarian basis, Vernon argues, is the “fundamental source of the ambiguity of many friendships at work”:

People’s utility at work extends way beyond just being a welcome distraction or even performing a role or a function. It goes to the heart of the working environment, underpinning why people are there at all. They work to do something, for a client, for a team, for a boss. And work is not without one key utility to the employee, namely, the paycheck. Ideally the work is rewarding, doubly so when there’s a sense of achieving something with friends. And if you receive what you believe you are due that generates friendly feeling too.

Vernon takes care to point out that people can and do feel authentic friendship toward each other at work — in fact, he points to Gallup research indicating that “a friendly working environment” leads to an increase in employee satisfaction by nearly 50% and people with good friends at work are twice as likely to feel like they’re well-compensated by the company. He dives deeper into the research:

Those 30% of people who report having a best friend at work gain in unexpected ways. They will have fewer accidents, engage more customers and work more productively. They also feel that what they are doing is well aligned with the company’s aims, in other words their work feels more purposeful. They are better at being innovative, and are more prepared to share ideas. Further, friends at work provide a sense of belonging: they make you feel that you are informed about what’s going on, that your opinions are being heard across the organization.

And yet shared activity within the framework of an organization is the glue that holds these friendships together. Vernon writes:

Take that shared activity away, which is what happens when people leave work, and the friendship withers like a cut flower.

Another phenomenon further illustrates this utilitarian nature of work friendships — the awkwardness that often ensues when two coworkers bump into each other in their off-work lives, say, at the grocery store or the park. Vernon breaks down what’s going on:

The reason for the discomfort is that stripping work relationships of their utility, and the environment in which the relationship makes sense, simultaneously removes their raison d’être. So outside work, people find it hard to know how to relate to one another… [They] become awkward because the framework within which they conduct the relationship is gone.

A large part of this has to do with the aforementioned ambiguity of friendship, or more specifically with our tendency to mistake friendliness, which can have a wide range of practical motivations, for friendship, which in its highest form is far less conditional and self-interested. And yet the difference between the two is one of degree, not kind — which makes the ambiguity all the more challenging to handle as it slides across the spectrum between these two poles. Vernon proposes a way of navigating the mire of ambiguity better, considering how we can not only cope with but even overcome the “powerful culture of instrumentality” the modern workplace cultivates:

We need a more subtle language to describe the conditions of friendship in these highly structured environments. It’s good to be able to draw distinctions between the ways in which we might profit from the friendliness of other people, on a scale from out-and-out exploitation, through mutual benefit, to an encounter we might come to count as providential. Unmoderated exploitation is never going to provide fertile grounds for friendship. But soft mutual benefit is not only bearable in work relationships but also actually common to all friendships. Indeed, even best friends are, in part, a good thing to have because of what they can do for you, for the function they can perform — from small kindnesses like feeding the cat, to being there to pick up the pieces when life falls apart. Some would say that the defining mark of a good friend is that they are always there for you and thus have a kind of unconditional utility… That sounds like a blessing. The difference between that and most relationships at work is that in the office people are friendly generally because of the mutual gain. You are liked first, not for who you are, but for what you give.

Art from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc, a tender illustrated story about loyalty and the gift of friendship. Click image for more.

Still, Vernon is careful to point out, this doesn’t automatically eliminate the possibility of genuine friendship at work. If anything, a common project is a great centripetal force that brings people together around it, and sometimes friendships might and do blossom. And yet without the utility that set that centripetal force in motion in the first place, that outcome would not have happened. Vernon writes:

Work may be one of the best sources of friends, as well as one of the most desirable places to have one. The point is that these relationships are always, at least initially, influenced by the utility factor. The trick is to ensure any nascent friendship is not determined by it.

Aware of this fruitful ambiguity, many modern companies now deliberately fuel it by filling their offices with “locations for the forging of friendships” — gyms, cafés, pool tables, the LEGO “play room” at Google’s New York office. But the true test of a friendship’s motives, Vernon suggests, is not when things are going right but when they go wrong. An especially common Achilles heel of workplace friendships based on mutual benefit is the havoc that ensues when one party begins to feel that the benefit she is receiving doesn’t measure up to what was promised or feels entitled to. This bespeaks the fundamental folly — our tendency to mistake friendliness for friendship. Vernon writes:

If friendship is about knowing someone truly and being known by them, it is also about knowing which relationships are likely to foster good friendships; the relationships that contain the seeds of deeper friendship, as opposed to shallow, instrumental friendliness. It all depends on the attitude people have to their tasks and what they expect of others. And perhaps when genuine good feeling rises above the request for jolly camaraderie or devious influence, an admiration for character over professional achievement — a virtual spiral of regard — can blossom into friendship.

One of the trickiest workplace “friendships” is that between a boss and her employee, where there is an implicit imbalance of power, money, and status. Vernon turns to Aristotle, perhaps our civilization’s greatest philosopher of friendship, who divided such relationships into two parts — contractual, based on the terms of employment and the respective expectations regarding responsibility, time, and compensation, and goodwill, “the human bit of the working relationship, or the extent to which you’re prepared to gift your talents free of charge to the boss.”

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' by Ruth Krauss, 1960. Click image for more.

Vernon writes:

The first part being contractual is, by definition, impersonal. The second, goodwill, is where the potential for friendship lies. Unhappiness stems from the confusion of the two.

Confusion arises, Vernon argues, when it’s unclear whether a boss-figure makes a demand to the contractual part or a plea to the goodwill, for instance in asking her employee to work late on a project. This brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s timeless definition of a great leader whose “real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.” Yet at the same time, it shines an uncomfortable light on contemporary startup culture, built to a large extent on the expectation — usually informal, unspoken, and unpaid — that people will work well into the night and on weekends, which even sprouted the term “startup hours.” All too frequently, the contractual and the goodwill parts of the relationship between the employee and the boss or founder bleed into one another, which over time can cause precisely the kind of resentment Vernon describes when one party feels unfairly compensated — whether it’s the designer toiling away for a year’s worth of 100-hour weeks without a tangible reward, or the founder feeling that the designer who goes home at 6pm on a Friday isn’t pulling his weight per the unspoken expectation.

Art from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

This already jumbled equation gets even more complicated, Vernon points out, when it comes to people doing fulfilling work or laboring at something that gratifies their sense of purpose, since we often assume that the work itself is, or should be, its own reward. This, in turn, leads to the assumption that “friendship can flow more freely between managers and subordinates because financial gain is not such a big issue.” Once again, Vernon turns to Aristotle to illustrate the hitch:

[Aristotle] tells the story of a lyre player at a party who was promised payment and more, the better he played. When dawn came, he asked for what he thought were his dues. However, his employer regarded himself as something of a connoisseur. After hearing such beautiful music he could not comprehend the demand for more cash: “Surely, the beauty of the playing is payment enough,” he reasoned. “Your playing is its own reward.” Unsurprisingly, the lyre player did not see it that way, and departed bitter and disappointed. The moral of the story is not that the lyre player did not enjoy making music: he may have taken more pleasure from it than anyone. Rather, it is that whilst the party-giver sought music the lyre player sought a living, and though the former received what he wanted in good measure, the lyre player did not. Work may include its own rewards but for the employee working for someone else it is still a means to an end.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

It’s worth pausing here and going on a slight tangent from Vernon’s writing to note that what is true of such employer-employee complications around meaningful work is also true in the larger artist-patron, or even artist-society, context — we, as a culture, often expect artists to work for free because they’re doing what they love, which somehow makes it less of a “real” job; they’re not allowed to ask for the same compensation as someone doing “real” work. (For a beautiful articulation of this unfortunate paradox, I recommend Amanda Palmer’s TED talk.) Somehow, we’re okay with business men and women making a ton of money helming companies that do little more than profit from people’s proclivity for buying carbonated sugar-water — not only are we okay but we put those CEOs on the covers of our magazines and list them among the Most Powerful People in the world. But we’re not okay commending artists and writers and other creators for making a ton of money by putting things into the world that enrich our souls. The lyre player of today may have changed her instrument, but she has hardly made progress since Aristotle’s time.

But back to Vernon’s narrative about the intersection of friendship and work — he cites his own experience of working for a friend, only to end up working without pay for a while once his friend’s company went into a “deep cash-flow crisis.” Cash-strapped himself, Vernon was unable to keep contributing for free, so he had to quit and find a paying job. The friendship never quite recovered from this perilous blurring of the contractual and the goodwill part. He cautions:

Work for your friend at your own peril.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry, 1961. Click image for more.

To prevent a similar fate for friendships that form at the workplace, he offers a sound strategy:

If friendliness is a feature of the office, as you might hope, you’re best either not to expect too much or quickly establish ways of deepening the friendship that have nothing to do with work whatsoever — perhaps by trying a drink together after work, or making an arrangement for the weekend. This will show the relationship up for what it is, so start small: if it is merely a work relationship then the attempt to form a deeper friendship with flounder; if it is truly a friendship, it will flourish. The philosophical principle is that friendships which depend upon doing something together also depend upon the mutual benefit that comes from that. If the benefit is cut for some reason then the relationship will be curtailed too. Such is the fragility of utility-based friendship.

If this sounds depressingly cautious, Vernon argues it’s not our fault — rather, it’s a toxic byproduct of consumer culture:

The underlying ideals of a commercially-minded society — in which utility, competition, profit and exchange are highly valued — shape a socio-economic climate that people’s friendships must contend with, too.

In many ways, Vernon argues, pioneering political economist Adam Smith — he of “invisible hand” fame — had one of the most lucid explanations of friendship in the history of philosophy, in large part because he was “that rare thing among modern philosophers as a thinker who takes friendship seriously.” In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith applied the basic cost-benefit model to such metaphysical concepts as sympathy, compassion, and platonic love. Vernon explains:

[Smith] interpreted the goal of wellbeing to mean a culture of flourishing cooperation. If that seems a mediocre thing to aspire to then that is not to say that the virtues of sociality are themselves mundane: if anything quite the opposite, since social cooperation requires individuals to act justly, beneficently and prudently. Moreover, when individuals act in this way, Smith argued, they should attract friends.

But social cooperation is bedeviled by the same inherent challenges as altruism — unlike happiness which, as Vernon puts it, “makes its own case as a goal in life,” cooperation doesn’t contain the inherent guarantee that people will want to aspire toward it. To solve this problem, Smith came up with a concept that he thought would motivate people — an imaginary figure he called the “impartial spectator,” which served much the same purpose Santa does in motivating little kids to be nice rather than naughty. Vernon outlines Smith’s idea:

An impartial spectator is a fictional presence that sees everything an individual does, not to pass judgment, but in order that the individual, believing that they are being watched, will act in the best way they can. If the idea of such an observer seems somewhat fanciful, its very shadowiness is part of Smith’s plan too. The point is that the impartial spectator will not satisfy the individual merely by praising them when they behave well; it is not an internalized father-figure. Rather, it operates more like a mirror to encourage the individual to see themselves as they truly are. That, surely, is a frightening thing to behold, quite enough to nudge anyone’s bad behavior in the direction of the good…

As Smith puts it, “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.” This, then, is what he believes will inspire individuals to act according to the values of social cooperation: they will seek to be praiseworthy, not merely praised. And in turn, because that praiseworthiness makes them lovely, they will find genuine friends, who are lovely too.

Illustration by Giuliano Cucco from 'Winston and George' by John Miller, an illustrated ode to an unlikely friendship. Click image for more.

So what does this have to do with the question of friendship at the workplace? Much of the conundrum stems precisely from this notion of praiseworthiness and the ambiguity — yet more ambiguity — of defining that. In commercial societies, which Vernon points out are pluralistic, multiple standards exist to evaluate the same behavior — what one person may consider the admirable ambition of a Type-A go-getter another might judge as the reckless bulldozing of anything and anyone in the way to a goal. When morality is a relative matter, deciding what is praiseworthy becomes tricky. It gets even more complicated:

A more practical problem stems for the need Smith has for praiseworthiness to itself be thought praiseworthy. If commercial culture is confused about that too — compromising it in favor of utility, profit, exchange and so on — then his theory collapses. The shadowy observer dissipates, as it were, in the harsh winds of what people might call the real world — the realpolitik of commercial activity. People then inevitably return to seeking praise for its own sake…

It seems … that this is what happens at work. The determining instrumentality of the workplace means that praiseworthiness is typically secondary to delivery. At work people are praised for the things they do, and chastised for the things that they fail to do: remuneration comes to those who impact the bottom line; people act out of utility — their “role.” Even intangible qualities that might be thought praiseworthy, like entrepreneurialism or simple human pleasantness, must indirectly prove their worth in terms of profitability to be valued. Employment is not like school where people are rewarded for trying hard regardless of what they achieve…

If a commercial society, of which the workplace is a microcosm, is one in which praiseworthiness is in fact a marginal concern, it seems that friendship will in turn struggle: people will on the whole be merely friendly with each other, rarely truly friends in the sense of loving someone with no thought of gain.

Our cult of productivity, Vernon argues — as I have lamented previously — is a particularly potent culprit in prioritizing utilitarian outcomes over human ones. He writes:

The huge emphasis on productivity in the modern economy … is nothing if not self-interest with a vengeance.

What emerges is a bleak picture of the despotism commercial society exerts on friendship, especially as workplaces continue to demand more of our time under the guise of letting us do “cool work” that is its own reward. (Tom Sawyer’s famous fence-painting scheme comes to mind.) And the more we immerse ourselves in work, the less we avail ourselves to the gifts of friendship because, as Vernon eloquently notes, “apart from the adverse effects of time constraints, good friendships depend too on individuals nurturing a range of interests.”

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Where this leaves us may be uncomfortable, but it’s also a reminder that we’re invariably a product of the choices we make and the priorities we set. Reflecting on where we are 250 years after Smith, Vernon writes:

The specter of utility still haunts the workplace today. Whilst the poles may have shifted, there is little reason to think that the challenge posed by it is any less strong. Perhaps it is stronger because it is more subtle: if social cooperation in commercial society has mutated into social productivity under capitalism, our work culture is at least as indifferent toward friendship as it ever was. [It's] a problem that has a tangible impact on us all, living as we do in a culture that assesses much more than just our productivity via cost-benefit analysis. Deeper friendships may form yet, but perhaps in spite of, not because of, commercialism.

The Meaning of Friendship (public library) is a fantastic read in its entirety, exploring such facets of human connection as friends and lovers, the politics of friendship, online friendships, and more. Complement it with Andrew Sullivan’s indispensable treatise on friendship, Love Undetectable, then revisit Aristotle’s timeless wisdom and some thoughts on the subject from Francis Bacon.

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