What does having a best friend at work say about employee engagement?

By Bill Springer on March 18, 2014

By Charley Morrow

The importance of employee engagement is somewhat new, and many people are still trying to understand it. But, in many organizations, more time has been put into measuring engagement than understanding it. And many employee engagement assessments are really just an index of questions that are statistically, but not meaningfully, connected to business outcomes.

In many organizations, rating and improving engagement is not about conducting meaningful surveys and organizational learning. It’s simply about measurement and compliance. Consider the common survey question “Do you have a best friend at work?”

Seems like a nice thing to have, but is it really important?

When Gallup introduced their Q12 Meta-Analysis to make sense of the relationship between engagement and organizational outcomes, and Marcus Buckingham wrote First Break All the Rules to illustrate what successful managers do to achieve superior results, they chose to ask specific questions about statistic relationships. This is a great, important breakthrough idea—ask questions that are demonstrated to be important!

It turns out that in many organizations “having a friend at work” is statistically related to retention. The problem is that this question-to-retention relationship is not obvious, and the relationship does not hold in all organizations. The crazy thing is that managers are making decisions, and developing improvement plans, based on the answer to this question.

The challenge with these empirical relationships however is that they may not have an obvious meaning. On the surface, the answer to the question “Do you have a best friend at work?” looks like a question about socializing. Socializing is nice, but not everyone comes to work to fulfill social needs. So, if the point of employee engagement is to improve the success of the business in partnership with employees, why not make the intent of the assessment more obvious?

If you want to find out if employees are going to stick around, one strategy is to simply ask “Would you prefer to work in a different place for the same pay and benefits?” or “Do you plan to be working here for the next few years?”

An additional problem with this empiricism is when a manager is presented with a question that’s only statistically related to an outcome, it may not always be applicable to his or her department. Maybe there’s no turnover and people just don’t really engage socially—they just do their work and go home. In this situation, the question may be meaningless.

The better way of measuring and analyzing employee engagement is to simply ask the right questions—those that have a conceptual and meaningful relationship to business strategy and outcomes.

As I talked about in my last blog post, your model of engagement should fit with your company strategy. If you are building a survey, ask yourself  “what do we need from our workforce to be successful as an organization?” The answer to this question can then be translated into an engagement survey that can measure for those critical skills such as interdepartmental collaboration or a simple obsession with customers.

Useful engagement surveys also often ask open-ended questions such as “What could the organization do to enable you to do your job better?” or “What barriers prevent you from fully contributing to the organization’s success?” The answers to these questions will help you and your organization grow and improve much more than knowing if your workers have a best friend at work or not.

Building engagement is about building meaning in organizations—the more organizations can do to make sense of the organization, employees, and how to manage them, the more successful their leaders will be.

Are you asking the right questions to find out how engaged your employees are?

Having a best friend at work doesn’t really connect to measurable business results. Click here to learn more about what does.

More about Charley

Charley Morrow is Vice President of Assessments at Linkage. He has over 20 years of experience designing, implementing, and evaluating training, individual assessment, and organizational-transformation interventions. He’s an expert in developing assessments and methodologies for individual, team, and organizational motivation and performance. Follow him on Twitter @CharleyMorrow.


Posted in Blog

About Bill Springer

When Bill Springer isn't writing for our Leadership Insights Blog, he's usually pushing a baby stroller, sailing, or riding bikes.....long distances.
6 comments on “What does having a best friend at work say about employee engagement?
  1. Kelvin says:

    Having a best friend at work, although on the surface, to you may not make for a measurable question to ask in a survey, it does however impact on an individual’s performance in their organization. Friendships between individuals in an organizations, between departments and between organizations within unrelated industries can be healthy for many reasons. Gallup for instance analyses wellbeing within organizations to help managers understand the impact this has on their bottom-line. Having friends at work can positively or negatively impact a person’s wellbeing. Understanding the dynamics of interpersonal bonds like friendships that form within an organization is knowledge that can help managers make decisions to improve the organizations bottom-line. It goes beyond retention to include synergy, shared vision, values and endurance, all of which are components of friendship.

    Knowing that co-workers can find friendship in each other says a lot about them as it does about the organizational culture they are a part of. I think it is important for a manager to know they have created an environment that considers every part of their staffs’ wellbeing. I wish more attention were place on friendship within an organization and business to employee relationships. If you were to read “The State of the American Workplace” report by Gallup, it too points to low levels of employee engagement costing American companies billions. I believe that friendship can improve the engagement levels of employees thus positively affecting an organizations bottom line. There is a quality of information that can be gained from knowing if employees have best friends at work and it should not be discounted.

    • Bill Springer says:

      Hi Kelvin:
      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’ve forwarded your thoughts on to Charley so he can expand the discussion here.
      Bill Springer
      Senior Content Editor

    • charley morrow says:

      Hi Kelvin,
      Gallup has done great work. I completely agree! It is, in a most general sense, important to have friends at work. It certainly makes my worklife more engaging,

      Your comment is a great one and I will use it when talking to confused managers who are putting together a plan to increase the number of people on their team who have a best friend at work. Maybe I am “old school,” but if leaders cannot make a connection between a measure and the business they are trying to run, I question its validity. Your comment may help.

      My worldview for assessments is to always look for closer link to a specific business need. Just as businesses have unique strategies, I believe they may need to have unique measures that reflect their business exactly.

  2. Teresia Boulware says:

    This question on the surface has no relevance and is not a good measure because the question doesn’t ask “Do you have friends at work” the question ask “Do you have a best friend at work”. The definition of “best friend” the one friend who is closest to you. friend – a person you know well and regard with affection and trust.

    As Kelvin stated “Friendships between individuals in an organizations, between departments and between organizations within unrelated industries can be healthy for many reasons.” However Kevin the word you stated is “Friendship” not “best friend” the word “best friend’ should not be used in the question, it does not give a good measure.

    If the question was “Do you have friend at work?” This question is more relevant to what is being measured. I suggest changing the question to get a true measurement.

  3. Bill Springer says:

    [The following is a comment by Charley Morrow has been posted by Linkage content editor Bill Springer]

    Hi Teresia:

    Nice points. The whole point of measurement is to help communication and understanding. The best business measures provide insights into how to do things differently.
    The problem with this question is that it confuses and mystifies what is really a fundamentally simple concept.

    Charley Morrow

  4. Lonney Gregory says:

    I agree with all of you! Let me add an anecdote. My team experienced the Gallup assessment and corresponding development actions because of the “score” around best friend at work. The premise is the higher the scores the more engaged the team is yielding greater performance. I agree with the theory, but my experience tells me otherwise. I had one of the most high performing teams in the company. We achieved all of ours goals and performance requirements with flying colors. My team was recognized and awarded. Yet no one on the team indicated they had “best friend at work. They interpreted the question extremely literally. Furthermore, they themselves didn’t see the relationship between the question and our “engagement”. After discussing it we decided to “do’ something about it. Later it became a joke. We became each others “best friends”, signing as emails as BFF. The following cycle the score did increase but only because we chose to be less literal about its meaning, intent or consequence. From my perspective there was never a correlation between the question and our productivity, engagement or impact to the organization. A better question would be “do you tell your best friend about how engaged you are at work”?. I bet that would yield a more accurate corollary to performance. Still, I get it. Having people you like, are comfortable with, trust, admire, and care about is certainly better for the team, the organization and the mission than not. I recommend that Gallup and others that use the best friend question explain its intent, and as was suggested, change it “from best friend” to “people you are friendly with” or “consider to be friends” as a better alternative. Out of my five “best friends” in life, I’ve only ever worked directly with one of them.

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