We routinely work together with other people. Often, we try to achieve shared goals in groups, whether as a team of firefighters or in a scientific collaboration. When working together, many people – naturally – would prefer doing so with others who are their friends. But, as much as we like spending time with our friends, is working with them in a group really good for our performance?
People have different personal opinions about this question. Some think working in a group of friends makes you more productive, because knowing and liking each other makes you more efficient. Others think it makes you less productive, because you spend too much time recapping your adventures from last weekend rather than focusing on work. So who is right?
Over the last 35 years, several studies have investigated the performance of groups consisting of friends. The performance of these groups was directly compared to those consisting of acquaintances, that is people who – in contrast to friends – have no meaningful joint past, no intimate knowledge about each other, and are rather neutral in their feelings towards each other.
A recent meta-analyis, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, combines the results of these studies. Although the number of integrated studies is comparatively low (26), and the effects found are mostly small in size, the overall message is clear.
Good news for those who like working with friends
The meta-analysis shows that groups of friends perform better than groups of acquaintances. They achieve more when they do physical work like moving heavy objects, but also when doing cognitive work like making joint decisions. This competitive advantage holds in situations where friends depend on each other to achieve high performance, like when sharing their knowledge is required.
Perhaps surprisingly, the positive effect of friendship groups also holds when people have to work relatively independently towards a joint goal, like when each team member tries to sell as many goods as possible to achieve an impressive sales score for the team. Even though all of these tasks can be achieved by working with acquaintances, it seems that working with friends has the edge.
Why does being friends foster group performance?
While the new meta-analysis can only tell us that it helps, but not why, previously published individual studies give us some clues. Put simply, friends are better at coordinating their actions. And people are more motivated to perform when they work in a group of friends.
This motivation boost can explain why it depends on the specific task as to how much working with friends can help performance. Friendship groups are particularly successful when it comes to tasks where they need to be quick, or to get a lot done. In work of this kind – think, for example, of collecting as much money for charity as possible – being persistent matters a lot. In tasks that are less about motivation than about having the right skills – for example when a team has to come up with the solution for a mathematical puzzle – friendship does not help group performance. But it doesn’t hurt it either.
The take home message
When we want to perform well as a group, working with friends helps in many cases and is harmless in others. So, this is one of the rewarding cases where scientific findings match personal experience: both as a group researcher and as someone whose favourite collaborators are also friends, I can give the same recommendation as many managers do. Given the benefits that being around your friends has for well-being – and as we now know also for performance – work in a group together with your friends if you can. Or perhaps, try to become friends with your colleagues.