Gregory P. Crawford is President of Miami University of Ohio.
Earlier this year, the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory, “The Healing Effects of Social Connection,” to combat what it called “our epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” This resource addresses many issues highlighted by a 2021 Harvard survey, which revealed that more than one-third of Americans felt serious loneliness. That’s similar to the number of young people in a Centers for Disease Control survey who reported anxiety and depression, particularly during the pandemic. As a university president, I have seen the rise of isolation in that age group, which I believe reflects problems in the larger society.
Ancient wisdom from the liberal arts can provide strategies to address this isolation. More than 2,300 years ago, Greek philosopher Aristotle noticed the indispensable value of friendship: “For no one would choose to live without friends, but possessing all other good things.” He described three kinds of friendships based on usefulness, pleasure and shared virtues. These friendships involve how people interact in a group without the modern connotations of favoritism or exclusivity. From my view, understanding how they can apply to professional relationships in the workplace might help overcome the loneliness epidemic while boosting productivity, camaraderie and unity.
In the workplace, Aristotle’s idea of useful friendship can enhance collaboration. He explains, “Thus, friends whose affection is based on utility do not love each other in themselves but in so far as some benefit accrues to them from each other.” This is not manipulative or selfish but describes the practical reality of many of our relationships and encounters, dignifying our partners in transactions.
To me, this shows that Aristotle presumes a common interest between buyers and sellers, managers and employees, landlords and tenants, which can also grow among coworkers, project team members and task force participants because each contributes something good to the other. These friendships may end when circumstances change—a tenant moves, an employee gets another job—but that does not diminish its value while it is in place. Leaders and peers who display such friendliness by being present, accessible and interested in their colleagues’ lives, aspirations and progress can provide a connection that eases isolation. It can be as simple as walking around and engaging others or spending extra minutes with them during breaks or lunches.
Regular accessibility, visibility and authentic interest in your colleagues have a cumulative impact. We depend on one another’s expertise, so we are open to sharing in ways that benefit one another. In commerce or shared work, people become familiar with individuals’ strengths, weaknesses, skills and perspectives, not only what they contribute to the immediate tasks but also their broader personalities and interests.
In the workplace, Aristotle’s mutually agreeable friendship depends not on usefulness but on the pleasure of another person’s company. He says: “…we enjoy the society of witty people not because of what they are in themselves, but because they are agreeable to us.” It’s enough, in other words, to enjoy their company.
Ordinary friendship can significantly benefit the workplace and the individual. Leaders can foster such camaraderie with shared meals, celebrations of milestones, retreats, volunteer work together and other activities not focused on production that fosters good relationships. In the past, organizations often sponsored softball teams, bowling teams, community service teams and other friendship-building activities. Remote work calls for creativity to arrange encounters, such as online tea times, chocolate tastings, movies or trivia contests, perhaps involving families.
The modern workplace is more team-oriented than ever, and good human relationships can accelerate teamwork. “Whether a workplace is fully in-person, fully remote, or hybrid, a culture that prioritizes and encourages work friendships is good for employees and good for the bottom line,” Jon Clifton wrote in the Harvard Business Review. While some businesses have discouraged mixing work and personal life, Clifton cites studies that suggest such collegiality boosts profitability, safety, inventory control and retention. He encourages managers to promote a buddy system, especially for new employees; increased face-to-face contact, even remotely; and opportunities to enjoy collaboration. Still, he warns against forced or superficial efforts to promote friendships. Deepening connections can foster even richer relationships that elevate the organization.
In the workplace, Aristotle’s highest ideal of friendship can accelerate a shared vision and mission. That relationship, he says, “is that between the good and those who resemble each other in virtue.” That’s rare, Aristotle admits, because such people are rare. But, friendships can grow beyond usefulness and camaraderie in a workplace driven by vision and mission.
When members of an organization embrace an idea of the future that upholds the flourishing of the whole society and the mission of their group to contribute to that flourishing, they share something more than boosting the bottom line. The unit gains greater unity. Greater attention to the triple bottom line of people and planet; financial success; and environmental, social and governance values can stimulate a sense of meaningful work and passion for the mission. Sharing such commitment to the greater good with colleagues can create powerful, lasting friendships.
Leaders can foster those relationships by championing and investing in worthwhile causes locally, such as charity or advocacy events, and beyond, such as disaster relief, sustainability efforts, disease awareness, education advocacy and community improvement. Units can organize intramural competitions to stimulate energy around a shared cause.
Good leaders know the importance of treating people with respect and helping them feel part of a group through authentic, genuine and respectful relationship-building. As society seeks a solution to the epidemic of loneliness and isolation, ancient wisdom about friendship, simple as it sounds, can help build professional and purposeful relationships that enrich individuals, the workplace and the human community.
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