Chatting with a friend recently, they asked a question that I’ve spent time wondering about as well, “Can senior leaders have friends at work?” It’s reductive to pretend there’s one universal answer to this question, but most folks find it increasingly challenging to have friends at work as you get more senior. There are multiple factors at work, and it’s interesting to dig into it a bit.
The biggest reason is that your peers have already developed a full life outside of work. Earlier in their career folks tend to look for their work to serve a large role in their lives (employment, friends, a source of identity), but work typically plays a narrower role in their lives after they’ve been working for ten-plus years. They’re open to developing friendships at work, they just tend to get squeezed out by existing commitments.
I’ve also found that tenured managers eventually run into perspective-altering events at work that make them cautious about developing work friendships. A few from my own experience: an acquaintance who interviewed with us, wasn’t given an offer, and took their life shortly thereafter; a friend who I managed, started giving performance feedback, a brief punctuation when they threw their resignation paper in my face, and never speaking again; hiring your mentor, them struggling, giving them feedback, and them abruptly disengaging from you; ending up managing a former peer who takes it poorly. Each of these taught me a bit about the obstacles that work friendships face where other friendships generally wouldn’t.
Even when they are interested and have time to build friendships at work, leadership roles often come with circumstances that make friendships difficult to build. Rapid growth changes the folks you’re working with frequently. Many leaders foster teams that compete with each other for individual success rather than collaborating together for joint success. Some teams are filled with genuinely kind, helpful folks who nonetheless are fairly transaction rather than relationship driven. All of these can make it difficult to form friendships, even if everyone involved is lovely.
If you’ve read that and are still hoping to develop more friendships, most of the time you can cultivate an environment that supports developing more work friendships. Schedule more team events. Prioritize collaborative work together. Just be deliberate about it, and be careful to avoid putting too much energy into it if it doesn’t work. My experience is that you’ll find you’re still developing friends at work, just at a slower rate and inconsistent pace.