Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Keeping it Professional: Your colleagues are not your friends

One of the biggest problems that young people have (especially young professionals) is how to 'get along' or be friends with others at work but at the same time maintain the level of professionalism that you require in the workforce.  This is something that all young professionals should think about but rarely do.

Why do people have trouble distinguishing between friends and colleagues?

One of the biggest reasons that people find it hard to distinguish between friends and colleagues (especially when they are first starting out) is because, for most people, in their previous educational careers, your friends are largely drawn from the group you spend most of your time with.  Think about your friends - where did most of them come from?  The chances are they were from high school or university.

We are used to the idea that we become close friends with and socialise with those we spend the most time with.  We then enter the workforce
and have a structure that we are fundamentally not used to: we have to interact with people on a regular basis in both a professional and occasionally social context who are technically not our peers (direct managers, senior managers etc) and many people struggle.

Most people default to what they have always done - seek out, make friends and socialise with those who are their peers.  You see this in organisations which have large graduate intakes: the grads work get coffees together, have lunch together, go out after work together and go out on Friday nights together.  Essentially what young professionals do is try and replicate the old way they had of making and maintaining relationships.

Why is this a problem?

I think most of us could come up with several ways in which the above could go drastically wrong (e.g. having a relationships and then breaking up with someone in the office and all the headaches that come with that) but even if you manage to avoid the big potholes - the biggest issue is actually a hidden one.

At the early stages of your career what you are doing is building your reputation.  We all know the type of professional reputation that we want to have - we all basically want to be seen as competent and as someone with potential to progress through the organisation (or to be given work that gives us greater experience and exposure).

The problem with treating your work colleagues like your best friends is that we typically let our hair down with our friends - we are all a little bit outrageous and most of us love a bit of inappropriateness.  For most of us there is a tension between the image you are trying to create for your professional life and the person you are when you let your hair down.

Being professional is not the same as being unfriendly...

Before you get on my back about being the boring person in the office who never does anything let me just say that this is not what I'm advocating.  I'm not advocating being the bore but I am advocating keeping your professional and personal lives separate.  Being professional does not mean being unfriendly - you can chat and be friendly and charming and keep your personal life completely separate to your work life.

This is actually quite hard as a graduate.  I mentioned in my post about the best things about my time in banking that one of the best aspects of banking were the close friendships I made.  This was primarily a function of time spent together (at the office) but I would also find myself going out with them on a Friday nights or if I ever finished work late.  However when I left banking and started my new job I found that, although people were friendly at work - when it came time to leave at the end of the day - everyone went home...there was NO socialising at all  Although this may sound like a really anti-social workplace it was incredibly liberating

I was free to come to work, do my job, present the professional appearance that I wanted to and get ahead and I could let my hair down and be myself with my friends.  Let's be honest - by the time most of us are in our 20's we are not desperate for new friends - it's hard enough catching up with the ones we have.

It is all about changing your mindset

I will do another post on some tips on how you can actually separate work from your personal life but the biggest challenge is to change your mindset.  If you can separate work from your personal life in your mind you are well on your way to being able to separate work colleagues from friends in your mind.  If you do not define yourself by your work then it becomes much easier to keep in mind why you are interacting with someone in a professional context.

Not being able to tell the difference between friends and colleagues is a mistake that many of us (including myself) have made.  Save yourself a lot of headaches and start thinking about it now.  If you are a new graduate please think before you go out and have a big night with your new colleagues or before you tell them all about your personal life.  Your colleagues are most often not your close friends and it is in your interests to remember this!

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  1. Interesting, I've found that I still enjoy socialising at work but understand that I am not likely to find my best buddy @ work..

    How did you normally deal with the Investment banking drinks with colleagues?

    1. I don't think that socialising is at all a bad thing - in fact I think that getting along with the people you work with is incredibly important. However most people make the mistake of forgetting that they are with work colleagues and thinking they are with friends...and that's when things started to go wrong.

      When I was in investment banking I fell into the colleagues / friends trap. It made it incredibly hard to separate myself from work and when I did have free time I was always torn between seeing my "old" friends or hanging out with work colleagues. It's a problem I'm glad not to have any more.