Stop Using Employee Friendships to Measure Engagement

Stop Using Employee Friendships to Measure Engagement

Here’s a question that has been touted by human resources consultants and practitioners for the better part of two decades as an important way to measure employee engagement: “Do you have a best friend at work?” While a principal of the polling organization Gallup, I prominently defended and helped popularize the concept.

But, over the past half-decade, I’ve grown increasingly skeptical about the utility of “best friend” metrics. First, because I believe organizations are incapable of manufacturing or improving such intimate personal connections and, second, because subsequent research has shown other (more easily influenced) factors to be more important drivers of engagement and performance.

Should businesses care if their employees have healthy relationships? Sure. They serve as a source of positive emotion and support and can enhance productivity. Should they get involved in them? No. Friendships, by their very nature, arise naturally, not as part of a corporate initiative. Team-building exercises can, of course, allow people to get to know each other better, enhancing cohesion and understanding. But they don’t make everyone friends. No amount of organizational orchestration can foster those more personal bonds.

What’s more, according to our data, friendship ranks well below collaboration, teamwork, and coworker abilities for maintaining employee commitment and intensity. In fact, when all four of these issues are analyzed together relative to employees’ commitment to the company and intensity on the job, the effect of friendships is so weak it sometimes is not even statistically significant. The data say clearly: “If you want the most from me, give me talented colleagues and some key collaborators, and give us conditions that foster teamwork. If we become friends,that’s great, but not crucial.”

The reason is simple: While friends might make you happy, teammates help you get things done. In a head-to-head match-up between the statements “I have good friends at my current job” and “I have many strong working relationships at my job,” the latter is a much better predictor of employees’ customer focus, innovative thinking, motivation to work hard, pride in their organizations and intention to stay in their jobs.

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