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How to make friends in hostile workplaces

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

Let’s face it – some workplaces are just plain nasty. But if we’re stuck in there, then we have to make the best of a bad situation. Here’s how.

Hostile workplaces are the pits. Workers are stressed and yell at each other. Some, backstabbing, underhand and downright assholes. Perhaps you recognize what I mean? Joining in with their negativity and aggression isn’t an option for you, so how do you get by, make friends, and enjoy camaraderie?

Before I get into that, a word on hostile environments…

Hostility spreads like a plague

Workplaces can suffer a miasma of negativity. It’s as if the ill-feeling descends like a cloud and refused to lift. The air is thick with ugliness and everybody looks like they’re breathing it in. Passive aggression is rife and the rumor-mill is fork-tongued. Coworkers stop collaborating openly and hold onto ideas and helpful information, sometimes deliberately, causing productivity to hit the floor. I’ve had the misfortune of working in environments like this, and I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the day…

There is one common factor in these environments, certainly backed up by my own experiences: FEAR.

When fear spreads, so does the hostility. One follows the other. And this is the point I want you to understand clearly, so that you can be sensitive to it when building new relationships and friendships. In a high-fear environment, the last thing you want to do is to add to the anxiety!

High-fear environments can be a result of typical causes:

  • When a company is acquired (bought) and staff are worried for their future
  • When business has taken a downturn and lay-offs are expected
  • When a new boss takes charge and staff don’t know what to expect
  • When a major restructure is being planned and people are not sure if they will have the same job, or a job at all
  • When outsourcing is being discussed and staff don’t know if they’ll be victims of it
  • When ‘new systems’ are about to be introduced

How to make friends in high-fear environments

The opposite of fear isn’t confidence, it’s love. (I don’t mean the smushy-kissy type.) When we love something – a job, an employer, a co-worker – we are not fearful of it, but instead we give to it, nurture it and give it a pat on the back, unconditionally.

So take that thought, and apply it to your coworkers. This is the way to build friendships. Nurture them.

How do you nurture them?

  • Be on the same side – always the most powerful tool in my opinion. Being clear that you’re on the same side is a great leveller, and disarms any situation where hostility might break out. Even when you’re disagreeing with somebody, positioning your disagreement as an attempt to get to the best solution for the same side sort of ‘allows’ the disagreement to take place. Use this lots.
  • Project positivity – smiles and laughter are the perfect medicine, and even inoculators, against the effects of a hostile workplace. Avoid looking like a grinning fool though – that might have the wrong affect.
  • Don’t push it. People in fear can be put off by over-assertiveness towards friendship. Let it happen naturally and let relationships develop progressively. There’s nothing worse than a pushy person in your face! It might take a while for coworkers to open up and let down their guard. And when they do, they will allow you in willingly.
  • Say positive things about them – avoid negative comments. You don’t need to be gushing, or provide false compliments. People will see straight through it, and wonder what you’re after. But a nice word said can go a long way. A ‘Thank You’, for example, is often forgotten but well deserved. ‘Well Done’ or ‘Good Effort’ work too, if delivered in a genuine way.
  • Engage in positive conversation – rather than bitching about the situation. Everyone else will be saying the same thing about how s**t the environment is. So be different. Don’t gossip, don’t spread rumors. Don’t pour fuel onto the flame of discontent!
  • Give support and offer your time – instead of expecting it. In high-fear environments, a gift of support or time stands out like a rose between thorns. It doesn’t need to be much!
  • Be the ‘fixer’ – instead of holding back. Hostile environments discourage most people from solving problems that require the participation of a number of people. It’s as if teamwork is no longer in the vocabulary! So here’s what to do – be the fixer – the person who gets people together and resolves stuff. It’s the leader role. You don’t need to be pushy about it – and don’t be negative is some coworkers refuse to participate; rise above it and leave the door open for their future involvement.
  • Open up conversation about non-work matters – the workplace is the problem, so why limit your interactions to it? The more you can engage in conversations about other things, the more relief you introduce. Introduce subjects where you’re sure that coworkers will respond positively, and avoid controversial subjects (like the Trump presidency, for example.)
  • Make open invites. Going out for lunch? Invite coworkers to join you. Going for a beverage after work? Invite coworkers to join you. Taking in a movie? Invite coworkers to join you. Whatever you have planned that can be shared: Invite coworkers to join you. But with no pressure…
  • Be authentic –  no matter what. If any of the above compromise your authenticity, don’t do them. Friends will want the real you, not a persona you create. Not everybody will want to be your friend, and that’s OK. Some people will still fear you, or be aggressive towards you. That’s their prerogative. And also yours. Be you – the real you – and let people decide if they’ll be in your club. And for those that don’t? Love them anyway because they’re probably fearful of their future.

Sense the Fear, but don’t indulge in it

The fear around you won’t disappear quickly, if at all. Building friendships with people will still require you take care with people’s sensitivities, but eventually it won’t be directed towards you, so much. You’ll be welcomed into the inner sanctums of friendship groups. But beware! Don’t indulge in the intrigue of negativity, or you’ll be dragged into the hostility yourself.

I hope this post has been helpful to you in building friendships in tough times and hostile workplaces. Please leave a comment below to share your story.

Useful Resources:

  1. Psychologist shares the secret to making friends at work
  2. 5 Reasons Why You Don’t Have Friends At Work
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This post is part 10 of 13 in the series Getting to Know Colleagues

About the author /


Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Applied Change, a Business Change consultancy based in the UK. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development.

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