I have a new friend at work, and she is so great. At least she was. We met when we volunteered to be on a committee for a big company community outreach event. We work in different areas of the company. I have been here a lot longer, and am senior to her, but we really hit it off and have gotten together socially a few times.
At first our conversations were mostly about our lives—partners, kids, hobbies (we both love gardening, baking, and knitting). We are both African Americans who married non-African Americans (my spouse is white and hers is Asian). I have always had friends at work, but very seldom have I had this much in common with someone.
My issue is that lately, when she talks about work, it is all complaints. She bad-mouths her peers and is not happy with her workload . Most problematic is that she doesn’t respect her boss, whom I know well and respect a lot.
I think a lot of her assessments of people are unfair and her workload seems normal to me. Sometimes I wonder if she is complaining to me because she thinks that, as an executive, I might have the power to change things for her—which is not at all the case.
I am not sure how to respond here. I find myself avoiding her, which isn’t going to work long-term because we are both still on the event committee. And I really believed she was, and is, special.
I think I know what I need to do but I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have.
Maybe Not BFFs
Dear Maybe Not BFFs,
I wish I knew what you think you should do! It is a funny dynamic I have observed; sometimes just taking the time to write a letter like this is all people need to get the clarity they are seeking.
This is one of those universal and perennial tricky situations—and it is especially tricky when there is a difference in seniority. The difference in seniority can cause an imbalance of power, or even just a perception of one. The classic advice is that we should always maintain a professional distance with colleagues, but I have never been able to do that. I honestly think we all spend too much time at work to avoid developing close relationships, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. In addition, Gallup’s research has shown that engagement at work is vastly increased when people have a best friend at work. But it can get complicated.
Everybody has different definitions of friendship. You have to decide what yours is. To me, true friends are who you call to bail you out of jail or bring you food when you are bedridden. They also tell the truth when it matters; e.g., when my friend says something nasty about another friend, I will take exception, but I won’t share my opinion of her salmon loaf. If your definition includes being honest with each other when something that is said or done makes you uncomfortable, you have to come clean. It might sound something like this: “Hey, I have been thinking about some of the things you’ve been sharing with me, and I have to admit that it makes me a little uncomfortable. Would you be willing to hear my perspective on some of your observations?”
You can also ask what she is hoping for from you. Is she just venting? Or does she want you to do something to help her? Or does she want advice on how to handle certain situations—insight you might be able to share based on your longevity in the organization? This way, you honor your side of the implicit agreement we all make when we think of someone as a friend.
Her response will do one of two things:
- It will reassure you that her intentions are good and she is just loosening up and showing her true self. If you decide you can get past this aspect of your new friend, you can always ask to avoid work as a topic of conversation. You will also want to ask yourself if this deeper insight into her character is building your attraction to her or pushing you away.
- It will confirm your suspicions. You already may have some certainty about your intuition that she has developed her relationship with you to gain some kind of edge and she is trying to manipulate you. If that is the case, I think it is always wise to go with your gut. If you decide she is not who you thought she was, and you want to distance yourself a bit, you can be perfectly cordial when you are together and simply decline any further invitations to socialize outside of work. I am not a big fan of lack of directness, but I do think, in some cases, simply taking one’s foot off of the friendship-building accelerator can work nicely. You can remain friendly acquaintances at work. I am sure you have plenty of those.
As a family member in a family-owned business, I was once told by a former business owner that I could never be true friends with any employees of the company. I have been testing that out for more than a decade now, and I just don’t think it is true. But I am a lot more careful than I once was.
Please do let me know what happens!
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.