Most people spend more than a third of their lives in the workplace. When you spend so much time with the same people, you are bound to form bonds with some of them. It is good to have colleagues who support your goals and inspire you. Still, you need to distinguish between colleagues and friends in order not to feel betrayed when relationships do not work out.

Some psychologists quote Greek philosopher Aristotle to distinguish between three kinds of friendships. Aristotle’s theory is that there is only one form of genuine friendship – the friendship of virtue. This is the rarest form of friendship based on mutual appreciation of the virtues that the other party admires in us. It is admiration and appreciation of each individual’s values, and this form of friendship takes more time to build.

The more common form of friendship one experiences in the workplace is the friendship of utility. Utility is defined as “the state of being useful or beneficial”. This form of friendship exists simply because someone is useful to you in some way.

Friendships of utility often characterise business networking. This form of friendship, often referred to as transactional friendship, comes with an expiry date. Many people work hard to have friends in high places that could in some way help them in their material needs.

‘High places’ is a relative term and does not necessarily mean powerful politicians, senior managers or other high-ranking public figures. Anyone who has some authority that could affect our lives can qualify to be a ‘friend in a high place’.

The Maltese language has some very apt expressions that encapsulate the obsession that some have to strike transactional friendships to achieve some justified, or not so justified, objective.

Roughly translated, one expression is: “Without saints, you will not make it to heaven”. Flattery, phoney respect, insincere adulation and addiction to boot licking are the tactics used by some to nurture friendships of utility in the workplace and beyond.

People in authority who have their feet firmly on the ground know when someone is trying to befriend them to get some favour in return. People in authority must stay focused on their goals. Transactional friendships should never lead to granting unearned privileges to those who wear masks to impress their bosses.

Never allow anyone to take advantage of you

Never allow anyone to take advantage of you. While some co-workers may be looking for a genuine friendship and connection, others may just be seeking out someone to help them progress in their careers without needing to excel in what they do. You will know who your real friends are when you retire from a position of authority.

Nurturing friendships of virtue will make our lives more liveable. People we can rely on to genuinely share our successes and failures in life are hard to find beyond the family framework.

Friendships of virtue do not come about in a day. To reach this level of friendship with someone, one has to embark on a lifelong journey of commitment, understanding and infinite patience, but the results will be very rewarding.

We need to distinguish bet­ween colleagues and friends from a very early stage in our working lives. Never assume that a work friend is a true friend or confidant. So set boundaries, because overstepping boundaries with people at work can cause tension, miscommunication and distractions. Never expect your co-worker to be your most valuable confidant.

Colleagues will likely choose their job over your friendship, if it comes down to it. They may not think twice to bend over backwards to please their boss, even at your expense. If you understand this reality, you will be less hurt if your colleague is not as loyal as you might hope.

Workplace friendships fail for five main reasons: problem personality, distracting life events, conflicting expectations, promotion or betrayal.

Early acknowledgement of troubling workplace friendships can help avoid the disappointment that a failed friendship can inflict.

Belonging is a fundamental human need. As long as we do not make transactional friendship our primary goal, the workplace is ideal for fostering the positive connections we all need – not just for our well-being but also for our productivity and health.

Some may never claim to have real friends. They are rea­listic about what they expect from workplace friendly relationships. Still, the search for friendships of virtue is worth pursuing.

The unrelenting loyalty of our true friends is not based on mutual benefit but only on respect for one another.


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