We call them our colleagues, our peers, our mentors, or our coworkers – they are the people in our professional lives that also share in the details of our personal lives, who we associate with voluntarily, and who we trust with our thoughts, our experiences, and our fears.
Outside of work, we might call these relationships “friendships,” but it’s rarer to hear that particular f-word at the office – and the reason has to do with more than just semantics.
“The word ‘friendship’ has almost a childlike quality,” says Robin S. Grenier, an associate professor at the Neag School of Education. “You avoid that word, because you’re seen as less professional, less of an expert or an authority, if you’re hanging out in the halls with your friends, as opposed to your colleagues. If you’re already in a field that is hegemonic in its structures, then you don’t want to stick out, and so avoiding the word ‘friendship’ or keeping your friendships quiet is a coping mechanism, a way to maintain your space.”
But friendships are powerful and positive – especially friendships between members of historically marginalized groups like women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. In a paper recently published by the journal Human Resource Development Review, lead author Kristi Kaeppel ’20 PhD, a graduate assistant with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning; adjunct professor of philosophy at UConn Stamford and School of Business academic advisor Emma Björngard-Basayne ’15 MA, ’18 PhD; and Grenier argue that workplaces that value and promote friendships can enhance the well-bring of their workforce – to the benefits of both the individuals and the institutions.
Kaeppel and Björngard-Basayne met through Grenier’s teaching certificate program – Kaeppel was a graduate assistant and Björngard-Basayne was a philosophy graduate student who wanted to learn how to operate better in the classroom. They worked together on a collaborative assignment, communicating frequently through email, but when the assignment and the course were over, their relationship continued.
“It was just this real sort of instant intellectual bond that we had together,” Kaeppel says. “I think there are people who are just your intellectual counterparts, and that’s what Emma and I found in each other. We started sharing some of the feelings of self-doubt that we had as women in academics. We were able to support each other and do other collaborative projects together. We went and presented at conferences, which definitely would have been intimidating to do alone for the first time, but together it felt possible.”
“Meeting Kristi when I did was so important for me to visualize myself in the future, hitting my milestones and graduating and having my PhD,” says Björngard-Basayne, “because I knew that she had my back and I wasn’t alone.”
Their friendship also sparked a scholarly conversation focused on friendships between women in academia. Psychological literature promoted the values that they recognized as inherent to friendship – trust between individuals, a voluntary relationship, creation of counterspaces where members can feel validated, and fulfillment of core psychological needs – but they found the term “friendship” largely absent.
“Friendship is this thing that seems to resonate with everybody, and it seems so obvious, but it’s probably not getting the credit it deserves,” Kaeppel says.
Their exploration into friendships between women found that while the bond of friendship counters the effects of marginalization, helping to confirm their identity and catalyzing their work in a way that benefits the institution, friendships between women are largely undervalued by administrators and faculty, ignored by scholars, and reframed into terms like “mentoring” that have been deemed more professional.
“We contend that new attitudes and practices that not only acknowledge, but honor and champion women’s friendships have significance for both theory and practice,” they write in their paper.
“[Human resources development] has shifted from focusing on externally motivating employees toward understanding how to cultivate employee’s existing internal motivation,” they write. “This involves understanding what workplace experiences employees find meaningful and valuable and that meet the needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Our article contributes to this inquiry by highlighting the role of women’s friendships in meeting these needs, which, at this point, largely occur serendipitously through women finding their way into workplace friendships with other women. But more intentionality in understanding this underappreciated social force is needed, especially because workplace friendships have long been known to increase employee commitment, morale, creativity, and innovation, particularly for women.”
Early feedback on their work was encouraging, they said, and since publishing, the response from other women in academia has been positive.
“I did get a note from a colleague of mine and she was like, ‘you know what? I’m excited, because now I can cite friendship,’” Grenier says. “The reason we started at this conceptual level was because nobody was calling it that. There was nowhere to go. And now, there’s this idea, that little seed to say, hey, we can use friendship. We don’t have to substitute mentor or colleague. They weren’t the right words, they wanted to say friendship, but as academics we’re taught to cite literature, and it wasn’t there. But now, here’s friendship. That’s what they’re describing, so let’s call it what it is. And that’s the exiting part.”
Their work has resonated beyond academia as well, catching the attention of a Forbes contributor and kicking off Twitter conversations about the impact of friendship on women from diverse fields of experience, and on the impact of friendships between members of other marginalized groups.
“We reviewed literature from academia, but I suspect that there are similar things happening in other male-dominated industries,” says Kaeppel, who hopes to continue this exploration of the role of friendships in promoting marginalized groups. “A lot of the studies that we reviewed and incorporated into our paper were often from people of color – women of color writing groups, Latina groups – and there are experiences that they share that we can’t relate to and that might make friendships even more critical for them to have that counterspace. One thing that I’m really interested in is instances where these friendships go beyond emotional support for the individuals themselves, to see what kind of change it makes institutionally.”
Kaeppel, Björngard-Basayne, and Grenier contend that scholars should investigate the role of women’s friendships, and friendships in general, even further, designing studies that explore factors contributing to friendships, how friendships vary, and what those larger institutional impacts might be.
But, they contend, scholars – and organizations and workplaces, including academia – should acknowledge and support the positive impact that friendships have to offer.
“Friendship is not a bad word,” says Grenier. “It’s something that that we should welcome, because it makes us happier and better people, and more likely to be happier and better in our jobs and in our research. Friendships in general need to be supported in organizations and workplaces and valued for what they can offer to employees and to the organization’s success.”