Article: Tuesday, 22 March 2016

new study suggests that friendships between colleagues are a double-edged sword. The advantages? People that like and trust each other are more likely to exchange knowledge. This knowledge can become a catalyst for innovation, especially in the hands of pro-active and creative people who have a drive to find new business opportunities. But getting cosy with colleagues can also lead to too much goal-alignment and make people afraid to pitch new ideas that break from the norm. One of the study’s researchers, Tom Mom from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), explains how workfloor friendships can help and hinder the company.

You describe professional friendships as ‘relational capital’. What does that mean?

You can describe your professional network in structural terms: how many people do you know, and what types of people are you connected to? Relational capital essentially describes the quality aspect of those relationships: to what extent do you really trust them and can you be candid to them? Would you ask them for help and do you expect them to forgive you when you make a mistake? These relationships, like any friendship, are always reciprocal. They go both ways.

Why is it important for companies that employees build relational capital?

Having relational capital is important when employees engage in ‘individual exploration’ which is born out of curiosity. This happens when people start looking beyond their usual work experiences to expand their knowledge. They see new opportunities for the team and the organisation, and start to experiment with new ways of doing business. Ultimately, this exploration can lead to innovations like the development of a new service, or approaching new types of clients.

Individual exploration goes beyond the normal routine and requires you to gather new knowledge. For this people often need to turn to their colleagues. It is much easier to ask a colleague who is also a friend to sit down with you and take 15 minutes out of their day to explain something new to you. That is how having relational capital can help with individual exploration.

Some companies still do not like to see their employees spending time to develop high-quality relationships. Allow friendships to develop.

So obviously companies can benefit from individual exploration. Is this something employees can learn? Or are some people just more inclined to explore?

From a psychological point of view, people who do a lot of individual exploration are often driven by what we call a ‘promotion focus’. They are pro-active and aim to improve themselves in their work. Identifying growth opportunities gets them excited and anxious to start new projects. Employees with a ‘prevention focus’ on the other hand are motivated by a desire to avoid making mistakes and as a consequence, punishment. This type of employee is usually less inclined to go out exploring.

You found that someone’s relational capital can also hinder individual exploration. How does that work?

Indeed, we found that these workplace friendships – your relational capital – can lead to exploration efforts and innovation, but we also discovered there’s a flipside to it. Being friends with people around you also makes it harder after a while to pitch plans that differ from theirs. You start to compare your radical ideas to the already established ‘group-think’. Because you are friends, you will probably be more agreeable to them while discussing plans. That’s how fresh and potentially ground-breaking ideas get smothered in consent and innovation is hindered. This is what we call ‘goal alignment’ and from a creativity and innovation point of view this is certainly an unwanted side effect of friendships between colleagues.

All this begs the question: what can companies do to see employees develop friendships that stimulate exploration, but do not lead to goal alignment?

Well, that’s the big challenge. Of course companies do not have a direct say in who becomes friends with whom, but they could at least allow that people develop friendships in the work place and exchange knowledge. That sounds self-evident, but in practice some companies still do not like to see their employees spending time to develop and maintain high-quality relationships. Other firms do better and include in their appraisals how much employees have done for their co-workers, or how much knowledge they have shared with colleagues. They sometimes call this your ‘organisational citizenship’.

Don’t be afraid of those ‘difficult people’ with creative thoughts that go against the grain.

At the same time, companies can avoid an overabundance of goal alignment by promoting job rotation in the company. Changing teams every few years creates heterogeneity in teams. To help exchange knowledge, companies can also purposely create projects that require members from multiple teams to co-operate.

Also, and this might seem a bit counter-intuitive, companies should beware of creating an identity that is too strong. One shared identity that guides everyone’s actions looks like a great idea on paper, but in practice it can lead to too much goal alignment and a lack of diversity. So, a strong identity can hinder exploration and innovation. My advice: don’t be afraid of those ‘difficult people’ with creative thoughts that go against the grain. They might be just the explorers you need to create fresh new directions in your business.

prof.dr. T.J.M. (Tom) Mom
Professor of Strategic Growth and Implementation
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Tom Mom
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