The Personal Side of Work Friendships

Published: October 5, 2017

Most of our waking hours are spent with professional colleagues. Family and friends own the biggest portion of our hearts but work teammates win the quantity contest. While the setting and the stakes might be different, the recipe for building strong connections is the same whether at home or at the office. Let’s look at the ingredients.


The goals of any new relationship are to negotiate the rules of engagement and learn to manage differences. Most of us keep our guards up at the beginning. These early rhythms rely on first impressions. We test each other. With each interaction, a foundation is built that will later support tougher challenges.


The growing cache of shared experience makes partners feel close. They carefully build trust to further support the foundation they have built. Sharing commonalities brings cohesion to relationships. Mutual dependency requires a blend of care and accountability. This fosters comfort and safety. At this stage, the relationship pivots on trust. For some, trust starts at zero and must be earned. For others, trust is assumed until broken. In either case, trust is the consequence of a series of accountability tests.


Connection creates a platform for exploration. Fueled by growth, differences are illuminated as partners find a way to be independent and together at the same time. Moving in different directions can either strengthen or weaken the connection. In addition to the thrill of new challenges, growth usually includes some struggle. Strong connections are based on more than togetherness. They also rely on an appreciation of differences. Partners need to be willing to stumble to innovate.


For continuous improvement to occur, closeness and distance must be balanced. Moving away brings clarity. Effective relationships build in space whenever they need it. Time and distance enables perspective when negotiating disagreements over conflicting expectations, perceptions, and needs. Once partners have a chance to work through disagreements, they can refocus on their new circumstances. Adapting with flexibility takes poise. New circumstances require different skills and behaviors than were needed before.

Just like the connections in your personal and social circles, all relationships cycle through these stages. We take on the challenges of creating something new in the discovery stage. We learn to manage closeness in the intimacy stage. We struggle with the risks and rewards of growth in the adventure stage. We step back, take stock, and gain perspective in the space stage. Refueled by new circumstances, we reinvest in the next stage of discovery and keep the cycle moving – whether at work, home, or play.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.