Blurred Lines: When Friendship Meets Colleagueship

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In earlier times, before the advent of computers, people were able to leave their work at the office along with the paper files. Not much was brought home, except for what remained in their minds. In big cities, one may not live in close proximity, or may have different circles of friends and interests beyond the workspace. Due to the demands of daily life in bigger cities, meeting colleagues regularly may not be a priority

In the context of the development sector, where work is often carried out in small towns or remote areas with a distinct ideology and focus, it becomes challenging to cultivate deep friendships, engage in meaningful conversations, or pursue significant interests outside of work. As a result, individuals often spend their time with the same group of people both in and out of the office. The boundaries between friendship and colleagueship become blurred, and the formation of exclusive groups, or coteries, is not uncommon.

Coteries (defined as a small group of people with shared interests or tastes, especially one that is exclusive of other people) are undesirable, simply because they exclude. Especially in development work which is public, and needs to take everyone along in order to sustain change. For example, if colleagues from an office lived in the same building or campus, it could be logistically convenient, but it could also blur the lines between personal life and office life. Similarly, if one only met the same people, say the heads of departments for whatever reasons, it could run the danger of becoming a coterie which may miss out on new ideas and continue to base their decisions on the basis of inputs from the same set of people. The coterie could be useful, even convenient, but it is important to creatively dismantle it to encourage new ideas and have a healthy, inclusive work environment.

Work in the development sector is mentally and physically exhausting. It involves travel and staying in interior areas which sometimes lack basic infrastructure. The issues of inequality and exploitation manifest every day and hindrances far outweigh successful completions. The interconnectedness makes every intervention complex and we keep circling in an unending web of challenges. There are joys and celebrations, but they are a tiny speck in the larger spectrum of frustrations. 

Colleagues are a great source of strength. Personally speaking, my ways of seeing, sense of what is possible, how to keep trying, endurance and perseverance, and many other life’s lessons were heightened by listening to, observing and learning from colleagues. How we choose to live and why, our understanding of issues is enriched by healthy discussions at the workplace. 

Also, colleagues are likely to be the first people to know and come to your rescue if you are ill, or you meet with an accident, or face other emergencies. Their help and support, specifically in trying situations, lead to strong bonding and a feeling of indebtedness. 

In a context like this, with high emotional attachments, it becomes almost impossible to separate a colleague and a friend. This can result in a partisan, discontent work atmosphere. There would be hesitations in saying or taking action because the person in question is a friend. More dangerously, there could be silence on critical matters because the friendship is at stake. Organisations need a hierarchy as employees are required to handle varied levels of responsibility. When friendships walk over hierarchical ladders, climbing up or coming down, it is sure to create alliances that are undesirable and lack objectivity.  This can have serious consequences on the organisation at multiple levels.

So, what can be done in such situations? An organisation should actively discourage the formation of exclusive small groups, even if they are work-related, such as interest groups focusing on specific topics or regions. Exclusivity should be avoided, never rewarded, and measures should be taken to ensure transparency in the formation of task-specific groups. For instance, establish clear processes for groups responsible for tasks like reviewing proposals, identifying relevant training, conducting field visits, and holding review meetings, as well as informal gatherings over tea. 

Although it may be challenging to control conversations from out-of-office dinners or outings, ensure that these discussions do not infiltrate the workplace. If you have a brilliant idea during a dinner with colleagues at someone’s home, provide the necessary context to those who were not present at the dinner, and avoid making decisions in gatherings outside the office. While it is natural to develop closer relationships within small groups when shared interests are aligned with work, it is important to remember that the focus is on professional subjects and to maintain a professional relationship accordingly.

As individual employees, each one of us should be mindful of how to avoid the colleagueship-friendship conflict. The topic needs to be discussed openly and included in induction programmes for new employees. 

The workplace is a microcosm of the larger world. Even if we join an organisation because we align with its focus, and share similar ideological beliefs, differences are inevitable. An organisation needs to foster a culture of colleagueship and a vibrant culture in order to fulfil its mandate.


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Anuradha Pati

Anuradha is an independent development professional with a deep interest in craft-based livelihoods, as well as reuse, recycle and sustainable living.

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