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17 Sep. 2015 | Comments (0)

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.

So if you’re a leader (or a pollster) looking to measure and boost engagement on your team and in your company, forget about friendship. Instead, concentrate on the aspects of work more powerful for performance today: individuality, pay fairness, transparency, meaning, future prospects, leadership opportunities, recognition, corporate culture, freedom from fear, teamwork, and personal accomplishment. Rather than inquiring about “best friends,” decision-makers should ask questions such as:

  • Do managers support each employee as a unique individual?
  • Is pay fair, if not generous?
  • Are leaders transparent?
  • Is there a clear mission and do employees feel a strong connection to it?
  • What paths do people have to advancement?
  • Do more junior people sometimes get to take charge?
  • Are employees well recognized?
  • Is this a cool place to work?
  • Do people feel energized or fearful?
  • How well do colleagues work together?
  • How often do people feel a sense of accomplishment?

We’ve found that the answers to these questions are not only highly correlated to strong engagement and performance, they’re also ones that you have the power to control. Each is well within the company’s jurisdiction — subject to the quality of leadership and managing — and not personally intrusive. No employee will balk about whether issues such as pay, work/life balance, or unified team objectives are part of a company strategy session. And should the job come to an end, no one expects those aspects to continue in the same way as would a friendship, which — it turns out — really wasn’t all that important to the business anyway.


This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 08/07/2015.

View our complete listing of Talent Management and Employee Engagement blogs.

  • About the Author:Rodd Wagner

    Rodd Wagner

    Rodd Wagner is a New York Times bestselling author, employee engagement practice leader for BI WORLDWIDE, and a former principal of Gallup. His most recent book is Widgets: The 12 New Rules for M…

    Full Bio | More from Rodd Wagner


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