I’ve always been a big fan of Behind The Music documentaries. Getting the backstage gossip on my favorite bands is a guilty pleasure I can get lost in for hours. But, as I found out more about how the Rolling Stones don’t speak to one another anymore, or the longstanding feud between John Lennon and Paul McCartney; it made me wonder if working with friends should be off-limits. Adding to that, a friend of mine once told me she mentioned her house-hunting budget to a coworker friend. This created tension during bonus season when she realized my friend earned more than her, although they performed the same role. Things can get even trickier when managers and their employees cross the friendship line and perception forms that one person is receiving a free pass or an advantage over others.

But, when navigated wisely and with the right dynamic, working with your pals can actually be an asset to business and productivity. And for every Beatles feud, there’s a prime example of a solid working friendship, such as the Foo Fighters (with longtime bandmates, Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins as best friends). Cooperating with those you share a bond with can capture a true authenticity in your work and creativity that you may not get with mere colleagues.

As human beings, we have a primal desire for close relationships. It’s why Tom Hanks befriended a volleyball when he was marooned in Castaway. It’s also the reason why solitary confinement is considered one of the harshest forms of punishment. Relationships are monumental to our emotional well-being. With the number of hours people put in at work these days, it’s now common that we have at least one good friend who’s either a colleague or business partner. Though there’ll always be those who prefer to keep their personal and professional lives separate, there can be huge advantages to doing business with pals or initiating friendship at work. When done wisely, it creates a built-in support system that encourages empathy and thinking outside the box. 

Sounds kind of perfect, right? Getting to work with someone who understands the different facets of your personality. In fact, according to a recent Gallup Poll, people who have friends at work are 43% more likely to receive recognition and praise for their job. But, like everything else in life, these relationships take work. Similar to bonding with a significant other, when friendship and work mix, you’re making a commitment to bring your fair share to the table, both as pals and colleagues. But to provide insurance against any future regret, it takes boundaries and clear communication.

Know your limits

Understanding expectations is crucial when walking the line between friendship and work. If you’re about to go into business together, lay out the rules and make sure you agree on each other’s roles. Decide who will have the ultimate say if you’re divided on a decision because there will be times in the union where you must agree to disagree, and still move forward. 

If you’ve become friends through your job, you still need to understand your own boundaries in how you approach colleagues at work. Referring to that expectation will set the tone for what’s appropriate to your relationship, and serve as a guide if one of you receives a promotion, or if you ever need to compete for an internal role in the future. 

Have friends in high places

You know that old saying: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know? It may be a bit frustrating to hear, and can even seem unfair at times. But some cliches stick around for a reason. And in the career arena, this one carries a heavyweight of truth to it. It’s no secret that your professional relationships make an impression about who you are at work.

If you’re looking to make friends at your office, choose wisely. When you start a new job, check out the lay of the land first. Make sure you’re adding like-minded people to your professional community. The people you surround yourself with don’t necessarily need to have the same goals as you, but they shouldn’t hold you back either. The same goes when choosing a business partner or new hire. Don’t choose them just because they’re fun to have a beer with. When making a decision like this, imagine you’ve never met before, and you’re viewing their credentials on paper. This will help you decide whether your goals are aligned and if your pal really is the best candidate.

Say sorry like you mean it

Whether it’s love birds or business partners, anyone in a close relationship who says they’ve “never had a fight” is probably lying, and if they’re not, there may be a whole lot of bottled resentment headed for self-combustion. As humans, we’re basically wired to get on each other’s nerves from time to time. When it’s your turn to apologize, there’s a single word that entrepreneur Marie Forleo says you should never utter in your sorry speech. That’s the word “if.” As in, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings or I’m sorry if you feel that way.

“When you say if, you take all the responsibility away from you, and you actually put it on the other person, and it makes them feel like crap,” Forleo explains. 

Simply saying, “I’m sorry I made this mistake. What can I do to make it right?” shows that you’re taking ownership of your actions.  Also, remember no matter how close you are with your pal, you can’t pressure them into forgiving you on the spot. Allow the situation time to decompress and don’t rush the process. They’ll come around in their own time.

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In past years, whenever the possibility of working with friends came up, I instantly had sweaty palms. But after seeing multiple examples of working friends where their bond made their work better, I’ve officially rethought my position on it. I now see it as an opportunity to create something great and strengthen the relationship in a way many people don’t get to experience in their lifetime. 

Longstanding business relationships will always present at least some ups and downs. Of course, you’ll never find the perfect business partner or colleagues, but the fear many of us have about mixing business and friendship may be unfounded at times. Strong friendship and loyalty can help create great work. When a business has heart behind it, people take note. It’s amazing what happens when friends go out on a limb and truly support one another. 

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  • Jennifer O'Callaghan

    Jennifer O'Callaghan is a Toronto-based journalist. She mentors young professionals and entrepreneurs on creativity and self-empowerment and has a background in broadcasting and theatre. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter.