Forget peer groups, think friends

One of the unexpected side effects of the last year has been my understanding of friendship. It’s not a term that sits easily in the business language of performance, assessment and 360 appraisals. It’s too vague, and soft, and downright dangerous. Instead, we talk of colleagues and peer groups which are much more sanitary.

However, the fact is friendship is the single most important social bond we have, and it’s hard work. It takes a long time to build but a short time to erode. Think back to the changes in your life – leaving school to go to college or work or changing jobs and moving away. Contact not maintained starts a process of gentle decline for a few months, followed by a steeper decline until, after two years, those who were good friends are suddenly distant acquaintances.

Robin Dunbar describes a “social fingerprint”; a pattern of friendships that remains constant, but the people in that pattern change. I find it a sobering thought. What happens to continuity, to those relationships that are witness to the progress of our lives? Are we surrounded by those who have seen the trajectory or those who have seen short episodes?

Over the last few generations, the infrastructure of friendships has changed dramatically. First, the industrial revolution took people off the land and into large towns and cities. International corporations and globalisation hollowed out those towns and cities of the industrial revolution, and today the nature of employment has become short term and transient. The foundations of long term friendships have steadily crumbled. Witnesses to our lives have been replaced by witnesses to our current project.

There is an upside to this downside. I have noticed it during the pandemic. Over the last twelve months, I have developed good friendships with people I have yet to meet. We do not talk about work, or our projects, or our business. We talk about what we’re noticing out in the different worlds we inhabit and in each other. A lot of laughter seems to be involved. It’s a very long way from a “peer group”. We find ourselves more confident, more creative and more purposeful. Before long, we’ll be able to meet, and that will be a joy.

There’s an important underlying message. If our workplaces are no longer places where good friendships can develop, those friendships will find another way of happening because they are essential and need them. The organisation may remain the financial locus of control, but friendships will be the locus of creativity and purpose.

Friendship is at the root of addressing wellness, engagement, innovation, and just about every other malaise consultancies are harvesting with “solutions”. It’s cheap and effective, although incredibly inconvenient for those who like to manage what they can measure.

Before the industrial revolution, when it came to the workplace, the Guilds held power and influence. As the industrial period rapidly dissolves, perhaps a form of modern Guild is reappearing. The organisations that do not foster community and friendship and show as much loyalty to that as to the incremental progress of the balance sheet will become empty places.

We don’t need peer groups or 360 appraisals. We need friends.

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