For years, we’ve heard that it’s crucial to have a friend at work. I’ve seen it in my own practice: Whenever I interview groups of employees, in very different kinds of organizations, I ask, “What’s good about this place? Why do you stay?” The most frequent and consistent answer I hear is “Because of the people.”
But not everyone has someone at work who’s a true friend — someone who has their back, helps them think things through, and hangs out with them in the breakroom. If you’re not close to any of your colleagues at work, but you’re not planning to leave your job right now, here are some ways to create substitutes for the great relationships you wish you had — so you can experience some of the encouragement and support that work friends usually provide.
Self-assess. One of the things our best colleagues do is tell us if we’re taking things the wrong way, falling down on the job, or working too hard with not enough return. Look back through your last several meetings, one-on-ones with your boss, and other interactions. Thinking of yourself in the third person, consider these questions: What feedback have you been getting? How was the body language in the room when you spoke? How did people react to you afterward? If you saw similar reactions directed toward your best colleague, what would you say to help them be successful? Now say those things to yourself.
Specify your goals. If you don’t have a friend to have drinks with after work, or to check in with over lunch, then you may not be having any helpful, reiterative conversations in which you articulate exactly what you want from your job — and you’re probably not taking the most productive steps to get what you want, either.
Record an interview with yourself on your phone, so you can review your responses with some detachment. Ask yourself questions about your plans for the next six to 18 months. Are you looking for new projects? Are you interested in moving up or transferring to another department for a different experience? Is this job a stopgap, or are you prepared to commit for the long haul? Now, listen to your answers, and consider, as if you were a trusted colleague, whether your work behavior is aligned with your goals, or needs some adjustment.
Look for positive models. Which of the people at your level or higher behave in ways you admire, that are particularly effective, and that you’d like to emulate? It may not be smart to think of those individuals as your friends, exactly, but you can make guesses about how they would behave toward you if they were your best colleagues. Ask yourself the kinds of leading questions they might ask, and tell yourself the advice you think they would give you if your relationships were closer. If you can’t see anyone playing this role for you, think of characters in movies or other media who have characteristics you admire, and imagine how they might treat you.
Speak to yourself kindly. Often, when we address ourselves, either mentally or out loud, we do it harshly, in ways in which we would never speak to anyone else, especially not someone we care about. But our friends are usually much more generous and supportive of us than we are of ourselves. Speaking to yourself kindly whenever you’re upset or reflexively self-criticizing, the way your best colleague would, helps you stabilize your thoughts and find the best next step.
Kindness and compassion are often just what you need to help you handle a tough situation or recover from a problematic presentation or other interaction that’s gone awry. Start by using a kindly form of address for yourself. For instance, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the affectionate “Darling,” and spiritual author Sylvia Boorstein calls herself “Sweetheart.” “Okay, Honey,” I’ll tell myself. “I know you don’t like it when you take a wrong turn, but that’s why you always give yourself extra time!” Or I might even say, “Honey, that was a terrific job!”
We all need a friend at work, so if you haven’t got one right now, try out these techniques. You may find that being your own best colleague will help you have more pleasant, more successful days on the job.
Onward and upward —