What happens when networking replaces friendship

So what brings you here?
So what brings you here?
Image: reuyers/Stefan Wermuth
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Peek into the lives of the globe-hopping, ultra-successful CEOs, and you’ll see there’s little room for human connections that aren’t transactional.

Breakfasts are spent with business partners, lunches with co-workers, and dinners with clients. Golf on the weekends is for cementing deals.

For the over-scheduled executive, relationships can end up being weighed according to their ability to advance personal or professional goals. Time spent with someone who can only offer companionship is time that’s not spent with someone who can offer more. For aspiring CEOs, there’s no shortage of advice on how to network.

No less an authority than Warren Buffett recommends selecting friends for their strategic utility. ”It’s important to associate with people that are better than yourself,” he said recently. Notably, Buffett chooses to associate with Bill Gates, one of the few men in the world who is wealthier. On the Freakanomics podcast, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi describes her membership in an informal club of fellow high-powered CEOs, the only people with whom she felt she could relate.

The commoditized nature of contemporary friendship is obvious in politics, where the line between friend and campaign donor has become so blurred that corruption cases have turned on defining the nature of friendship. In politics, the word “friend” has become so unmoored from meaning that it can be used to address both compete strangers—as John McCain frequently referred to the crowds at campaign rallies—and bitter enemies, as in the sneering “my friends across the aisle.”

But the erosion of friendship by friendly networking is no longer just for the rich and powerful, nor even for who just want to act like a boss. As more and more workers are cast adrift from full-time work into a world of gig jobs and side hustles, personal and professional lives are becoming intertwined—and social media accounts don’t distinguish between personal and professional contacts. When everyone is thrown into the mix, relationships that come with opportunity for advancement are sure to win.

It’s not just freelancers. For corporate employees, work relationships forged out of necessity can become a substitute for organic friendships. Office softball teams are nothing new, of course, but now employers also organize charity outings, restaurant and museum tours, and cooking classes, all in the name of building teams and strengthening “employee engagement.” One of the newest office design trends is work bars—for coffee or something stronger—to replicate the experience of mingling in public spaces without any risk of encountering someone who isn’t a colleague.

In his influential book Bowling Alone, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam described the decline of civil organizations, the social clubs and fraternal organizations that knit together American society. They’ve been replaced with temporary, work-based connections that feel like friendships, but quickly flicker out when no longer practical. How many work friendships endure after a friend leaves the company?

Putnam wrote Bowling Alone in 2000, before the rise of social media and the smart devices that further distract us from our neighbors.  His warning seems more urgent than ever.