Friendships in the workplace lay the foundation for collaboration and learning. Friendship cliques, however, can also produce fissures that only people with personalities of the diplomats in the organization can span.
Friendship in the workplace can be a positive factor as friendly colleagues collaborate harmoniously, share information easily and support each other’s work.
On the negative side, friendships can also lead to ‘friendship cliques’, in which the members work closely with each other but consider non-clique members outsiders, and perhaps competitors. Members belonging to a clique act towards each other in ways that they will not act toward others outside the clique, for example, sharing confidential information and even gossiping freely, and playing favourites when the opportunity arises.
Sometimes, people find themselves to be what some scientists call Simmelian brokers. A Simmelian broker is the person who is a member of two or more cliques, and no one else in either of those two or more cliques belong to the other clique(s). Simmelian brokers can play a key role in increasing an organization’s effectiveness and efficiency by being the bridge between completely separate friendship cliques, thus enabling better collaboration and resource sharing.
The challenge for Simmelian brokers is that they can find themselves tugged in opposite directions by the different cliques. What happens when people ask for proprietary information or gossip about the other clique, for example, or if the broker has to choose between the cliques?
To be successful on behalf of their organizations, Simmelian brokers must maintain the trust of members of all cliques but these conflicting tug-of-war pressures just described can undermine this trust. If the Simmelian broker, for example, seems to favour the other clique, or refuses to divulge information about the other clique, then members of the first clique will start to question the broker’s loyalty. They will start to lose trust in that person.
Recognizing that personality style impacts relationships, Stefano Tasselli of the Rotterdam School of Management and Martin Kilduff of University College London studied a set of Simmelian brokers in two different professional settings. Their goal: to identify the personality style most effective in maintaining trust (specifically their affect-driven trust) with separate cliques.
Their study found that the most successful Simmelian brokers in maintaining the trust of others had a “role-appropriate diplomatic personality style.” This diplomatic personality style consists specifically of two personality characteristics: high self-monitoring and low blirtatiousness.
Self-monitoring concerns the ability of people to be flexible and aware of how they present themselves to people. Self-monitoring involves an almost effortless ability to adjust to different situations depending on who is present.
Blirtatiousness, as its name implies, concerns the tendency by people to speak without inhibition. Blirtatious people tend to be loquacious, even effusive in sharing their beliefs, attitudes and feelings with no thought to who might be listening and how they might react.
People with high self-monitoring, low blirtatiousness diplomatic personalities are flexible about how they present themselves depending with whom they are interacting and are cautious about sharing their thoughts and opinions. In psychological terminology, their personality style ‘fits the network’.
Their study —based on two different samples, a setting of young professionals in a business education program aimed at career transition, and a hospital unit with focus on critical care—also explored when non-Simmelian brokers were most successful in keeping the trust of their fellow clique members. In this situation, the researchers found that the reverse personality style was most effective: The less you monitor yourself, and the more blirtatious you are, the more the members of your clique will trust you.
Simmelian brokers are vital to an organization’s success, but they also face significant personal pressures: while trying to maintain everyone’s trust, they are pulled in different directions.
It is important that companies and leaders recognize the Simmelian brokers among them and to show their appreciation for those who are walking this personal tightrope for the benefit of the company. Verbal expressions of appreciation in departmental or organization-level meetings and positive recommendations in performance evaluations are two ways to reward their delicate relationship skills.
Simmelian brokerage can also have an impact in personal development. People who engage in social roles such as Simmelian brokerage will find that they are changing their behaviours— and eventually their underlying personality traits — in an effort to be more successful ‘brokers’.
The core lesson is that every organization is driven first and foremost by human beings — which means that no matter what processes, procedures and guidelines are in place, expressive ties such as friendships will have a major impact on organizational success. Friendships can reinforce the organization’s exchange of knowledge and other resources; the diplomats in the organization are the stars who leverage that emotional foundation to ensure organization-wide collaboration and cohesion.
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