As you invest more and more time into finding your dream career and professional calling, it’s inevitable that the lines between business and pleasure blur, often out of necessity. A tough day at the office may end with drinks and gossip with a trusted coworker, or you find yourself responding to emails on your BlackBerry from your yoga mat before class begins.
As the lines blur, so too do traditional professional relationships. Rehashing your weekend with coworkers on a Monday morning has become the norm, as has bringing your “work friend” out with the girls on a Friday night.
Chances are you’re already out there networking, getting business cards and delivering your elevator pitch to anyone and everyone who may get some value out of it. As you start to build connections and talk about potential business partnerships, job opportunities or industry happenings, it’s inevitable that you’ll meet some awesome women, build familiarity and ultimately, become friends.
With all the emphasis on building and maintaining a strong network, it’s clear that business has, in many ways, become a relationship economy, where value is often measured by who you know and what you can give to others.
But when is it time to pump the breaks a bit on casual work relationships? We’ve all been told to avoid workplace romances, but what about work friendships—can they become traps to avoid too?
Say you meet another woman around your age and who works in the same industry at a networking event. You start chatting and realize that both of your companies could partner to build an offering that would be completely new and unique. Not to mention, she’s carrying the bag you’ve been coveting, so in between scheming about teaming up, you discover your shared love of vintage accessories, travel and Game of Thrones. You make plans to meet for coffee next week to discuss your idea, then meet up again the week after that and again the next, and pretty soon you’re texting each other on Sunday nights to rehash the newest episode of Game of Thrones.
Fast-forward a couple months: you’re ready to present the idea to your respective bosses. Everything is ready except for one tiny detail … and the two of can’t seem to reach an agreement. While you don’t want to be overly harsh and come off as pushy, you feel very strongly that it needs to be done one way, and your business-partner-turned-friend feels her solution is the best.
The stakes are high for not upsetting your new friend. After all, not only do you need your business partner, but you’ve planned to go shopping this weekend and you’d hate for it to be weird. So you let it slide, still sure that your idea was really the better way to do things and harboring just the tiniest amount of resentment that she didn’t at least meet you halfway.
With this, you’ve found yourself stuck in a friendship trap. You’re forced to confront personal issues in the context of a professional relationship, which makes it difficult for any business dealings to be productive and fulfilling, and not to mention, it causes you double the anxiety.
This is where relationships in a professional setting can get tricky, and the friendship trap becomes real. These situations can make you feel awful, and you may be left wondering why it’s gotten you so upset.
It may be due to a concept known as an “interdependent self-schema.” This means that we can be prone to filtering the world and our own sense of worthiness through the lens of our relationships. The stronger and more numerous our bond with other people are, the better we feel about ourselves. So if something goes wrong in a relationship that crisscrosses the professional and personal spheres, it can do double the damage—both externally and internally, as well.
While it’s as important as ever to build a strong network and surround yourself with people who can open new doors, it’s also essential that you steer clear of the friendship trap because of the problems it can create when the rubber meets the road on actually executing joint business dealings.
In the end, it’s really a matter of defining your boundaries. This means:
1. Draw the line.
As soon as you feel a work friendship blossoming, gently but firmly make it clear that growing relationships that will help your career is your top priority at the moment (if that’s the case). Sticking to your bottom line will make it easier for you to put your foot down when it comes to any negotiation or tough decision-making down the line.
2. Keep it professional.
You may find that it’s easier to limit purely social contact with this person. For example, follow a rule of thumb that you’ll only go out for drinks after you’ve spent time in a professional context, instead of inviting her out to a dinner with your college friends.
3. The more the merrier.
Suggest other connections you have who you think she’d like to get to know. Similarly, ask her to introduce you to a few contacts of her own. This will make it easier to keep the relationship blossoming, but with less pressure to sustain each other’s emotional needs.
4. Know what friends are for.
If you do find yourself in the friendship trap, keep in mind that a real friend respects you and will not turn her back if you speak up in disagreement. If your work friend reacts otherwise, then it’s a cause to question how much she really cares about and values you. Separate your definition of a true friend from that of an acquaintance to make sure you’re surrounding yourself with the right people who will support your growth.
While making new friends is exciting and fun, throwing the professional component into the mix can add a layer of complexity. Understanding how the friendship trap happens and why it’s so easy to fall into should help prepare you for when you start to find yourself with a new work and real-life bestie. Implementing these tips will help you define the relationship on your terms and keep it functioning at an optimal level for both of you. —Melody Wilding
This article originally appeared on Fairygodboss. As the largest career community for women, Fairygodboss provides millions of women with career connections, community advice, and hard-to-find intel about how companies treat women.