#133: The Power Of Friendship

I have been thinking about the power of friendship. My thoughts have been triggered by creative partnerships. Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Skin and Len Arran, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the list goes on…all their histories share a similar feature. They’re rooted in deep friendship. Their founding stories have them locked into small rooms churning out songs, refining their craft, laying the bedrock to become the superstars that they are.

Then, two ago weeks ago, the 2022 Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize, for the most outstanding article on planned change and organizational development, was awarded to Connie Noonan Hadley, an organizational psychologist based at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, and Mark Mortensen, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at INSEAD, for work that they’d done on loneliness at work.

It was the confirmation that I needed to write about friendship at work.

/strategy

The Gallup organisation has consistently demonstrated that having best friends at work makes a material difference both to our experience of work and how we turn up at work. Of course, that makes intuitive sense, but it’s cool to have the data.

Their research shows that those of us who have a best friend at work

  • “engage customers and internal partners
  • get more done in less time
  • support a safe workplace with fewer accidents and reliability concerns
  • innovate and share ideas
  • have fun while at work.”

At the end of August, they published this research showing that the pandemic years have increased the importance of having a ‘bff’ at work.

For example, in 2019, 23% of people who did not have a best friend at work were extremely satisfied with their place of work, compared to 33% of people who did have a best friend. By 2022, the difference had more than doubled. The percentage of those who didn’t have a best friend and were extremely satisfied had dropped to 15%, whilst the satisfaction levels of those who did have a best friend stayed stable at 32%.

Again, this makes intuitive sense. In times of profound change and uncertainty, having someone who knows you and who you trust, provides security.

Of course, forming friendships is very personal. It’s not like we can issue an edict that says ‘by 1 November, everyone needs to have found a bff in our business’. So, what can we do?

The report’s authors, Alok Patel and Stephanie Plowman, suggest that leaders be more intentional about friendship, and that we should create opportunities for friendships to blossom.

They say that the more explicit and intentional leaders are about spending time demonstrably putting effort into building friendly relationships, the easier it spreads. This can be as simple as doing a walking meeting or suggesting an off-site coffee. Or even more simply, make time in your week to walk around the building connecting with people.

One powerful way to create opportunities for friendships is to send people to conferences together or enrol more than one person from your business in the same course. They might not become besties, but the deepened knowledge and connection will benefit the business.

In these contexts, hierarchy and siloes often cease to apply, creating the possibility for more open communication. This, in turn, spills over into the business.  You can randomly put people from across the business together for connection coffees – again, not everyone will become friends, but you’re signalling that personal connection is valued.

And of course, consistent friendly communication makes an enormous difference.

Indeed, other Gallup research shows that the data reveals that “checking in with your team members once a month is literally worse than useless. While team leaders who check in once a week see, on average, a 13 per cent increase in team engagement, those who check in only once a month see a 5 per cent decrease in engagement” (Ref: Nine Lies About Work).

Each of us, whether we’re in leadership or not, can make the effort to listen, to demonstrate care, and to create opportunities for connection.

/self

To be a friend to others we need to befriend ourselves.

Many of us, in our desire to help those around us, forget ourselves with long-term negative consequences for them and us. The foundation of any friendship has to be, being your own best friend.

Linda Graham’s book Resilience is an amazing resource, packed with dozens of exercises that you can use to deepen your friendship superpowers – for yourself and others.

One of her practices she calls the ‘awe practice’.

She quotes Albert Einstein as saying “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed”.

Being in awe both soothes our nervous system and unlocks our creativity, encouraging us to see in new ways, to notice what we miss in our busyness.

She suggests that we take ourselves into nature, a garden, a park, anywhere and notice everything as if we’re seeing it for the first time.

Immerse yourself in the natural world’s brilliant design – the dung beetle’s dogged strength, the ant’s tirelessness, the impossibility of a bumblebee’s flight, the high-frequency hovering of a sunbird, the marvellous mechanics of a strelitzia, the various shades that make up a dove’s grey, the greens of grass. Spend twenty minutes in awe and you’ll be more creative and a better friend to everyone and everything.

/soul

Carol-Ann Davids’ How To Be A Revolutionary and Ashraf Kagee’s  By the Fading Light are both about friendship.

The very structure of Davids’ book is awe-inspiring.  She brings together McCarthyism, the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards, South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and the compromises of the latter-day South African and Chinese states. The glue that holds it all together is friendship.

Beth, a South African, Cape Flats-born, anti-apartheid activist becomes a diplomat in democratic South Africa. Deployed to Shanghai she finds herself living beneath Zhao, a journalist for the Chinese state. As we discover journalist is a misnomer, propagandist is more accurate, at least for much of his life.

They’re both lonely. She is in the throes of divorce, and he, post-Tiananmen Square, is grappling with who he is, and the role he has played in his life. They both struggle, with varying degrees of complicity and complication, with their revolutions.

Zhao types late at night. His keystrokes confess his life. His truth-writing project was conceived as he stood in the midst of the Tiananmen massacre. He reflects that “Either my life began or ended that day. I do not know which, by a sort of doorway opened up to everything else: my life until then, the present in which I found myself, and my mother’s disappearance. But when I walked away from the square that day, I also walked squarely into my own life.”

Zhao and Beth’s friendship allows us to read his typewritten pages and as Beth reads, she takes us into the pain of her teenage years, her best friend’s assassination, and her testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is a remarkable book. If you’d like to read more about it, Hilary Lynd wrote this powerful review in the LA Review of Books.

Kagee’s frame is tighter. He takes us into the lives of four young boys – Cassius, Haroun, Mu’ain and Amin. To varying degrees, they are unseen and unwanted in their homes, at the very least that’s how they feel, but they have each other. Friendship makes life richer; it holds the promise of a better tomorrow. Kagee does an amazing job of taking us into their minds and the blames they pile on themselves as they try to make sense of their families’ tribulations. He takes us into the pain of invisibility.

The context is Cape Town’s Salt River in the 1960s. Food is everywhere – coconut chutney, the neighbourhood fish cart with kabeljou and snoek, samoosas, daltjies and koe’susters. The Blue Lights are a group of local thugs who both sing Elvis out-of-tune and wield knives, teeth, and phlegm (you’ll need to read the book). Mr. Magoo, a ventriloquist, in a fit of jealousy, outraged that the audience loved his dummy more than him, pulls out a revolver and shoots it. The ensuing mayhem ensures that Magoo is arrested and is never seen again.

And then Kagee introduces us to Norman. Norman too was unseen, but unlike the four boys had no one to buffer his pain, had no protectors, had no light in his life. The boys’ friendship saves three of them, but Amin disappears. Norman too is overwhelmed by darkness. The young boy he once was also disappears.

In both books, friendship is of a time and place, and it gives gifts that transcend both. Sometimes people disappear from our lives, but their imprint never does.

I hope that you have a week in which you are present, to yourself, to your friends, to all living beings, those who came before us and those who will still come.

Thank you for this friendship. I value your presence here.

All the best

Karl

PS: This week, Mandla Langa’s The Lost Language of the Soul won the 2022 University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing. I wrote to you about it in this letter.

Strategy, Soul and Self

Register to receive reflections on leadership and life