If I think of you as a friend, then there’s about 50% likelihood that you don’t think of me likewise.
That’s disturbing, isn’t it?
Well, it should be. Good friendship is vital to our physical and emotional health. A Harvard study that spanned more than 75 years concluded that the single most important determinant of our well-being, including financial, is the quality of our relationships, which certainly include our friendships. Even in the workplace, friendship can be a source of happiness and improve our work performance by leading to trusting relationships in which those involved have each other’s back.
What really prompted me to write this article is a recent study that examined reciprocity in friendships and the effect it has on the influence one has over another. Its finding about the existence of reciprocity was quite consistent with what previous studies have also found. Essentially, when those you identify as friends are asked to identify who their friends are, studies indicate that there is only a 34 to 53 percent chance that they would identify you as their friend.
Of course, lack of reciprocity in friendship is not really good news for developing high quality relationships. In the workplace, the lack of reciprocity in friendships can be damaging in a variety of ways. Among those is the limiting of our ability to influence others, which then affects our ability to engage others in collective action and collaborate with them — something that organizations expect us to do more of today.
The lack of reciprocity in friendships may simply be due to the fact that it is not humanly possible to be friends with everyone. Robin Dunbar, a social psychologist, has proposed a limit to the number of stable social relationships one can have: 150. The basis for Dunbar’s number is human cognitive limitations. Technology, with all its information processing prowess, may help us push beyond the limits imposed by our cognitive apparatus but, apparently, not by much. While technology may help us broadcast our life happenings to others and help us stay acquainted with others, research is reasonably clear that technology does little to strengthen our close relationships — those which can be a source of comfort and emotional support as well as amplification of our happiness. We are generally limited to only about 5 such relationships, with our spouse or significant other occupying the most premier position for many of us.
In the office, the lack of reciprocity in friendships may simply be a reflection of what Adam Grant notes to be a trend among Americans to de-emphasize workplace friendships. He attributes this to a variety of reasons including the disappearance of long-term employment with a single employer, the use of flex work hours and remote work, the availability of technology that allows us to be in constant touch with our friends outside work, Protestant beliefs that may encourage greater focus on work, and the more current generations looking at work as means to leisure time after work.
While research suggests that it may be best for you to develop a reciprocated friendship with someone since the influence you have on each other is likely to be the strongest, it is not entirely a lost cause if you see someone as a friend but your friendship is not reciprocated. A study suggests that when the goals or rewards you seek are dependent on the performance of someone who does not reciprocate your friendship, you may still be able to influence that person. Your sense of dependence on someone you see as a friend may make you communicate in a way that ends up influencing that person. For example, you may communicate with kindness and consideration that moves the other person.
So, go ahead and be friendly towards others irrespective of whether your friendship is reciprocated. Be sure to see yourself as dependent on them in some way. This will increase the level of influence you have on them and, at the very least, make you look like a leader in their eyes.
Acknowledgment: I wish to thank Theresa Sigillito Hollema for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.