Every manager needs the magic of a work BFF

We’ve got this.
We’ve got this.
Image: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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One of the few pieces of advice I feel good about giving to everyone is this: When your job gets harder, the best thing you can do is make a friend.

This is also backed by the data. Gallup research has consistently shown that having a best friend at work leads to better performance—perhaps related to the findings that people who have a best friend at work are more likely to be engaged in their job, more likely to take risks that spark innovation, and less likely to be actively looking for job opportunities elsewhere.

The upside could afford to be more widespread. Just 20% of US workers report having a best friend at work.

The other 80% perhaps doesn’t know what it’s missing or where to find it. For tips on the latter, Gallup’s research piece includes some suggestions on how you can create an environment where friendships can thrive, and the entire report is worth reading. For tips on the former, I turned to my own work BFF, Eli Budelli, mobile lead at Automattic, to share some things that make having a work BFF so great for us, particularly as senior managers within our organization.

You need someone to support YOU

One of the hardest things about management can be the emotional labor of supporting other people all day. We’re managing down and supporting our direct reports, and we’re managing up with our own bosses because we know they have tough jobs and we don’t want to be one of their problems. But it’s easy to feel that no one is looking out for us.

A work BFF can be there for you on days when it feels like no one else is—or can be. I know on days when it feels like everything is going wrong, Eli is the first person I turn to.

Eli: Having a conversation with your work BFF during a difficult time can stop you from lashing out at a co-worker, can make you see things in a different light (hopefully a better one), and can give you more context and advice to better face the challenge at hand. We all have blind spots, but if you have a friend like Cate looking out for you, thinking ahead for you when you are overwhelmed, you will make fewer mistakes and recover faster from whatever mistakes you inevitably make. 

They will call you on your crap

As you move up the ladder into positions of increased responsibility, it gets harder and harder to get good feedback; people will often tell you what you want to hear. How do you cope? It’s like when you go shopping—you don’t take the friend who tells you everything looks great, you take the one who will say, “Don’t buy that, buy this instead—it looked much better.” The same is true with your work BFF. A good work BFF is the person who will tell you the things other people won’t. Eli once told me, “Cate, I would never let you do anything that stupid.” And I laughed, but I also appreciated knowing she meant it.

Eli: When managing individual contributors, your mistakes are costly; when managing managers, that cost is prohibiting. In my day-to-day work, the only person who has both the context to guide me and the willingness to always be absolutely frank with me is Cate. She usually sees the issues that I’m trying to (sometimes unconsciously) avoid and she comes up with a path forward that doesn’t involve me working 60 hours a week. It’s incredibly refreshing to have someone to turn to—at work—who you trust 100% has your best interests in mind, understands the context of the organization to steer you productively, and will cut through all the euphemisms to tell you what you need to hear.  

They will talk you up

Eli and I were once on a call together about a talk we were going to give, when the organizers asked us a terrifying question: “What are you qualified to talk about? What do people come to you for advice on?”

Instead of answering for ourselves, we answered for each other. I hyped up Eli, and she did the same for me. In the end, we wound up giving a talk together in Spanish, so perhaps things went too far, but still—I would always sooner talk about how fantastic Eli is than about myself.

This strategy can be super helpful in getting achievements recognized, particularly for women, who tend to face more social stigma for owning our own achievements. I know every time one of my articles comes out in Quartz, I only have to tell Eli, because she’ll be so happy to tell other people. It’s amazing.

Eli: For me it’s usually easier to recognize someone else’s strong points than my own, so when I see an opportunity that would be great for Cate, it’s a piece of cake to make the sales pitch. Your work BFF is the one who tells others that you will be the right person for that exciting new position, that you’ve solved similar problems in the past with great results, and that they are confident you can do it again. 

They will push you to advocate for yourself

Sometimes we need to take a deep breath and… advocate on our own behalf for what we deserve. A work BFF can be the best person to push us to do that. They know our strengths, but they also probably know some of the ways in which we tend to be harder on ourselves and the times we’ve been disappointed. They can be the best person to tell us when the time comes that if we want things to be different, it’s on us to make things change.

Eli: Having someone else clearly outlining your achievements, and willing to explicitly support you on your quests, gives you more confidence to step up, making you feel safe and allowing you to take on more risks. As you grow professionally, taking risks and self advocacy are mandatory—having a partner pushing you in the right direction at the right time can make all the difference.  

They will make everything more fun!

“Employees with close friends at work reported being in a good mood more often,” Friend of  a Friend author David Burkus wrote in the Harvard Business Review. It’s true—the stronger the relationships I have at work, the more excited I am to start my day, and the easier it is to roll with the inevitable disappointments. A dull meeting can never be that boring if Eli is in it too, and anything good is that much better because we get to celebrate it together.

Eli: On Fridays, or really whenever you need it, your work BFF is there to share a cocktail—or tea in the case of Cate. Chatting over beverages about the good, the bad, and the ugly while laughing together is one of my favorite parts of the week. That time helps us decompress and put things into perspective, taking stock of what we did well and articulating, in an enjoyably relaxed setting, what we can improve on. Come Monday morning, I’m looking forward to sharing with her things that happened over the weekend, and on the weeks she’s off I miss her insights and jokes. 

The fine print

One of the key benefits of work friends was noted in Burkus’ above-referenced HBR article: “If you have friends in the company, it’s far easier to ask for help without fearing you’ll be judged a poor performer. In addition, having friends in the company, especially if they work in other departments, gives you access to information through informal networks you might not otherwise get.”

But the article also noted some potential downsides of pursuing close friendships at work, like emotional exhaustion and the increased likelihood of envying those we are close to.

This is why the best work BFF may exist at some distance from your day to day. It’s really important not to be inappropriate—you can’t build a balanced relationship where there’s a power imbalance, so don’t expect one of your direct reports to be your work BFF. It’s also worth being aware of how friendship can come across as cliquey, so look for ways to welcome other people into your friendship, and make sure you don’t monopolize each other at work events.

But the benefits far outweigh the possible downsides, so what are you waiting for? Reach out to some potential work BFFs, and schedule coffee or a video call. And if you’re lucky enough to already have a work BFF, make sure you tell them the difference they make to you. The feeling is going to be almost undoubtedly mutual.

Cate Huston is an engineering manager at Automattic, where she has led the mobile and Jetpack teams.