The Importance of Friendships at Work and Why Bosses Get It Wrong

Daniel Harrison |

I recently read a book for seminary called Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without by Tom Rath. It’s not a Christian book, but filled with practical advice on relationship building in the workplace.

I took extensive notes and wrote a two-page review which is the content of this article below. I also shared this with our church staff because I found it very helpful and worth passing along.

Sometimes people separate their professional life from their private life. But a healthier work environment allows for friendship building because work is a personal aspect of our lives. Some companies discourage boss-employee friendships which is a mistake.

This article is not just about boss-employee friendships but deepening friendships in general.

Whether you’re an employer or not I’d love you to read this, because I think it will be a healthy value where you work. For me this just re-enforced the love I have for friendship with those I work with.

Here’s the post.

Why Vital Friends Are Important

Vital Friends was written to underscore the power of healthy friendships in the workplace. People tend to separate their working lives from their private lives. They are professional at work while personal at home.

Unfortunately, this lack of relational focus has negatively affected the personal health and wellbeing of many. But if we blur the lines between work and home, allowing for further-reaching friendships, we will enjoy a more satisfying life.

A Factor For Homelessness

Rath began with the story of a homeless man named Roger whose harsh working environments led to alcoholism. Eventually, this caused him to lose everything including his home and family.

While conducting research, Rath asked Roger a question, “Who expects you to be somebody?” Roger hopelessly replied, “I don’t think anyone does anymore.” Rath made a crucial point that people often become homeless not because of extreme alcohol or drug abuse, but because they lack healthy lasting friendships.

On the flipside was Maggy, who was also homeless. But because of a caring friend named Jessica, she eventually landed a new job, got married, and had children. When Rath asked her the same question, “Who expects you to be somebody?” Maggy answered, “Jessica.”

These stories, Rath explains, “illustrates that friendships are a fundamental part of human need.”

Friendships are a fundamental part of human need. - Tom Rath Click To Tweet

In a day where psychologists focus on individuals and sociologists focus on groups, we need a renewed passion for the development of friendships. With growing emphasis on education to better our personal success, what’s missing is schooling in friendships.

This impacts one’s wellbeing far more than personal achievement.

Friendship and Wellbeing

Rath spent a few chapters explaining the practical benefits of friendships. They ranged from basic examples, like making the workplace enjoyable, to more surprising ones like how our physical health is affected.

“One person’s happiness or misery,” says Rath, “spreads to the other person quickly.”

Scientists have even found that good friendships lower the need for prescriptions, as it “improves health and lifts depression.”

A 2005 study showed that marital strife can delay healing of physical wounds. If you’re in an unhappy marriage, it can be delayed by double. “Unfortunately, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce,” says Rath. But “the determining factor for marriages that succeed is friendship.”

One marriage therapist stated, “At the heart of my program is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on a deep friendship” (Godwin).

Stop rounding your friends!

Rath uses these examples of marriage to build a case for the different roles that friends should have in our lives. He speaks on “the myth of well-roundedness.”

This is the false belief that spouses or friends must fulfill all our personal needs. In reality, we only need each friend to play at a minimum one unique role in our lives.

Rath explains that,

“Friendships aren’t designed to be well-rounded. Different people bring different strengths to the friendships. We shouldn’t expect our friends to be good at everything. One person can’t do it all.”

Furthermore, he devotes an entire chapter to unpacking the eight different roles of friendship: builder, champion, collaborator, companion, connector, energizer, mind-opener, and navigator.

He then delineates how we might encourage those roles in others and ourselves.

On Supervisors Befriending Associates

There is a sad reality among some companies that supervisors cannot befriend associates. This is founded on a false assumption that boss-employee friendships decrease productivity. But the contrary is true.

“Studies have shown that friendship at work increases success,” clarifies Rath. Making emotional investments in others has many benefits. A study found that 30% of employees report they have a best friend at work and are “seven times more likely to engage in their job.”

Not only does investing personally make the workplace more enjoyable and productive, but it makes employees “95% more likely to be satisfied in life.”

Investing personally makes the workplace more enjoyable and productive, but also makes employees 95% more likely to be satisfied in life. Click To Tweet

Friendship makes a huge difference.

In My Life and Ministry

I will synthesize this book into my life and ministry by realizing that people are motivated more by a better quality of life than making money.

When a group of workers were asked which they would rather have, a 10% pay raise or a best friend, most desired the best friend. As an employer, I will be motivated by helping others fulfill their unique callings and passions over my own desire to succeed.

This book encourages me to cultivate a culture of friendship at work.

Shifting Culture Is Possible

Rath concluded the book with the story of Sandra, who shifted her staffing culture by engaging them at an emotional level. It took lots of intentional effort but made huge payoffs for the company.

Eventually, a previously dissatisfied customer stated that he could “see and feel the improvement” on the operators faces. This is the outcome of a successful turnaround from good leadership.

As Sandra shared her story at a conference, she concluded, “if it worked with those old blokes, it should work with anyone.”


While I was reading through this book, I was listing the names of my friends who fill the eight different roles in my life.

I am encouraged to spur them to be good at what they’re good at. I will emphasize what they already do well, and worry less about where they lack. It’s helpful to learn we shouldn’t underestimate the role one person plays even if it’s only one role.

The bottom line is that we must pioneer and advocate a future of family-like friendships in the workplace.

We must pioneer a future of family-like friendships in the workplace. Click To Tweet

Families don’t always get along. But as Rath said, “a troubled family is better than no family.”

Comment below: What barriers have you experienced in developing friendships in the workplace?

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