What is Friendship and can you find it in the workplace? – Part 01

In less than a week two people from opposite sides of the world have called me to ask about “friendships in the work place.” In both cases, the question centered on disappointment. In two different scenarios, it seems one party to a dynamic had not acted, as a friend, the way another party to the dynamic thought they should have. For both of the persons contacting me, their concern really boiled down to the question, “Can you really have friends in the workplace?”

In my opinion, it isn’t impossible but it takes two things to make it work. One is a shared understanding of what friendship and being a friend really means. Two, it takes real “Maturity” in both parties to the relationship.

priendship in marketplace

In psychology, maturity is the ability to respond to the environment being aware of the correct time and location to behave and knowing when to act, according to the circumstances and the culture of the society one lives in. I remember reading somewhere that “maturity doesn’t always come with age”. It is in fact deeper than age. It is about the way you see and understand things. The way you consider others. The way you communicate. The way you react. The things you value. The things you are willing to entertain. The way you represent yourself and others as an adult. Everyone grows old, but not everyone is growing up. Friendship in the workplace can only exist between grown-ups. Even then, it’s a hard thing to maintain.

Let’s explore Friendship. First we’ll get the academic stuff out of the way. Friendship, a state of enduring affection, esteem, intimacy, and trust between two people. In all cultures, friendships are important relationships throughout a person’s life span.

  • It is a dyadic relationship, meaning that it involves a series of interactions between two individuals known to each other.
  • It is recognized by both members of the relationship and is characterized by a bond or tie of reciprocated affection.
  • It is not obligatory; two individuals choose to form a friendship with each other. In Western societies, friendships are one of the least prescribed close relationships, with no formal duties or legal obligations to one another.
  • It is typically egalitarian in nature. Unlike parent-child relationships, for instance, each individual in a friendship has about the same amount of power or authority in the relationship.
  • It is almost always characterized by companionship and shared activities. In fact, one of the primary goals and motivations of friendship is companionship. In addition, adolescent and adult friendships often perform other functions, such as serving as sources of emotional support and providing opportunities for self-disclosure and intimacy.

In truth, the academic definition seems to suggest that the workplace isn’t a natural environment for fostering friendships. But, it seems we humans act mostly with heart over mind in our relationships, so let’s go there.

“If you have two friends in your lifetime, you’re lucky. If you have one good friend, you’re more than lucky”  —S.E. Hinton

A couple of years back, my family was walking into McCale Center to watch a University of Arizona Wildcats Basketball game. My oldest daughter, Amber, pointed in front of us and said, “isn’t that Frank and Ginny?” While we were once close friends, time, distance and circumstance had drawn Frank and me apart. I had not seen him in over twenty years. We spoke for just a couple of minutes and set a lunch date. What came to amaze me wasn’t that we reconnected, it was as if we had never been apart   After Ginny, Frank, Susan and I spent an incredible two and one-half hours together over lunch, which was special, I left lunch thinking, “Friendship is an incredible thing.”

What kind of friend am I?

My father profoundly said to me when I was fewer than ten years old that I would be lucky if, at the end of my lifetime, I could count my true friends on more than the fingers of one hand. I have never forgotten this sharing on his part or his follow-on advice that friends should be cherished and nourished. That said, I am not particularly proud of myself with respect to my efforts to maintain the valued friends that I have. I do not put forth the effort in maintaining contact with them, that their value to me deserves. In fact, I am quite lucky that despite my neglect many of those I value most put forth the essential effort required to keep a friendship vital.

This week, following the contact from the persons I mentioned and the consideration they provoked, I was struck that I am fortunate to say I need more than all of the ten fingers to count the true friends I currently have. That said, these contacts made me critically aware of the reality that we all enjoy only so much time to let our friends know how much we appreciate them, how much they mean to us. 

More than thirty years ago, in one of my first jobs as a hospital C-level professional, I came across Dean Hoopes. Dean was the Director of Medical Records in a hospital in which I was the new CEO. She was twenty years older than me chronologically and twenty years younger in her zest for life. We hiked the five mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, Arizona together on off-work hours. While working, together, we set up several of Arizona’s first Swing-Bed programs. These were the predecessors to Critical Access Hospitals. I learned more from Dean on the job than I can begin to tell you, and I know she will say I taught her more. That is what friends do and say. More than that, she taught me a lot about how to enjoy life, as at a time I really wasn’t. Dean brought Susan – who would become my wife and friend – on one of our hiking trips, a plan between two female friends, and the rest is history.


More than thirty years ago, in one of my first jobs as a hospital C-level professional, I came across Dean Hoopes. Dean was the Director of Medical Records in a hospital in which I was the new CEO. She was twenty years older than me chronologically and twenty years younger in her zest for life. We hiked the five mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, Arizona together on off-work hours. While working, together, we set up several of Arizona’s first Swing-Bed programs. These were the predecessors to Critical Access Hospitals. I learned more from Dean on the job than I can begin to tell you, and I know she will say I taught her more. That is what friends do and say. More than that, she taught me a lot about how to enjoy life, as at a time I really wasn’t. Dean brought Susan – who would become my wife and friend – on one of our hiking trips, a plan between two female friends, and the rest is history.

After years working closely, we each went our own way to live our lives. After about ten years Dean called me “just to catch up”. It was great talking with her; the conversation was short but special. I was reminded of how much of life we have experienced together and how much she contributed to what remains most special in my memory. I hung up the phone feeling better than I had in recent memory.

Dean taught me that friendship is about honesty. She was single when I met her. Having become so at what I’ll call “middle-age”, she was committed to enjoying life – and the company of male companionship – to the maximum. Susan and I would invite her to join us for an activity and she would say, “sure, unless I get a better offer.” I can’t tell you how many times she called to share that the better offer had come her way. Her approach was so honest that I never felt offended in the least. Her approach made it easier for me to be honest with others in my communication. Dean is a friend who “owns” one of my fingers.

“Close friends are truly life’s treasures. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. With gentle honesty, they are there to guide and support us, to share our laughter and our tears. Their presence reminds us that we are never really alone.”                                                                                                                                       — Vincent van Gogh

Coincidentally, Joe Kleinbauer, who I haven’t seen in ten years, sent me an email this week. Joe and I had the opportunity to spend about three years together when I was a hospital CEO and he was a member of the hospitals’ Board of Directors. Our friendship quickly transcended that professional relationship. Together we undertook community projects with results of which I am proud today. He was an inspiration and my leader in these activities. But, what we really did a lot was talk about “life” over coffee.

Joe had a way of helping me see who I was and “what mattered most” for me. I felt like I could share anything about myself with him and it would be okay; it would be heard without judgment. That isn’t to say he wouldn’t tell me what I needed to hear, but, he would do so in a way that enhanced my sense of self rather than diminished it. What was significant to me – and proved to be quite a learning lesson – is that Joe also listened to me in the same way. He shared his issues and thoughts and gave credence to what I offered in response. I’ve never enjoyed a more reciprocal relationship. Frankly, I miss being closer to him. Fortunately, from my perspective, though we live thousands of miles apart, we manage still to exchange emails every few months. I never feel disconnected from him.

It is no different with my friend Shenoy Robinson who lives in India or with my friends Randy Morris and Mike Enriquez in Pennsylvania. Randy was once my CFO and Mike was the best Chief Operating Officer, I have ever worked with. Though we rarely get the chance to be together and just frequently communicate via email, our friendship remains strong and vibrant. When we do communicate it seems that our last most recent exchanges occurred only the day before.

Joe Kleinbauer used to say to me that the key to a successful relationship is the absence of expectation (and that’s hard to achieve in the workplace). He said, “If you have no expectations of a friend they can never disappoint you.” He really practiced what he preached, or at least he tried to and appeared to. I never felt pressured to “be” in any way with Joe. It was just enough that we got together when we did and that when we did it was wholly authentic. I took that feeling away from my contact relationship with Joe. Today, even when we don’t communicate for long periods of time, I think of him “in the moment” and enjoy that relationship with him. I will remember something he said or did with a smile, smiling as if he were there to enjoy it with me.

“A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal, that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.” 
                                                                              — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series

Dean and Joe are older than I am. Mike and Randy are younger. Two other real friends, Mark and Shenoy are about the same age, just a bit younger than I am. Age doesn’t seem to matter. It is more about the quality of the relationship. Friendship seems to be more about getting and giving. As I reflect upon each relationship with my closest friends it occurs to me that I get something deep out of each relationship and I feel that I contribute equally to each. Maybe the “giving and getting” is elemental to true friendship. I can say that there is deep comfort in each of them.

And, there is an element of pure joy in them.   When I see these friends excel, when something good happens in their life, I feel joy. I am truly happy for them. I have watched Mike Enriquez move through his life passages well after he and I discussed the possibilities, what he hoped to see and experience. I offered my “sage wisdom” on those possibilities and how to realize them. As I see his (and my) greatest expectations – professionally and personally – realized, I feel happiness akin to having experienced his life evolution myself. True friends seem to actually feel what one another experiences.

“Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”.  “Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.”                                                                                                                   —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

I am so impressed with my friend Mark Tozzio. I met Mark just eight years back while in the Cayman Islands as a hospital CEO working on an initiative to sell what was then the country’s only private hospital. Mark was involved in the process. He knows the hospital and healthcare business well, and I learned a lot from him. But, that wasn’t the best part of becoming friends. Since I met Mark, I have watched him, a man almost my age, create a new expertise for himself. He has become an expert in on-line education and training.

Mark and I quickly became close friends; I am not sure why. But, what I can tell you is that I am really enjoying following his current professional journey and participating in it when I can. Together we have written a curriculum in Hospital Administration and Management. But it is still more than that, I have come to respect his values as a human being. He is invested in making life better for others. Seems that the best friends aren’t those we can “get” something from. Our best friends are those we like to be associated with because they have interest in something bigger than themselves. Those kinds of friends give us the opportunity to feel better about ourselves.   

Some friends are new, some friends are old. Being one or the other doesn’t necessarily influence the quality of the friendship. With some friends, there is the exchange of “stuff” of value, like influence, referrals, even products and services for money. With other friends nothing of value seem to be exchanged. It appears that two friends simply enjoy one another’s company. That’s a funny thing about nurtured friendship, it feels good.

Now, the fact is the nature of my business is such that I know a lot of people; I have a lot of acquaintances. I am careful when I declare someone to be my friend. To do so opens me up to a personal, self-imposed obligation: “To be a good friend.” I have already admitted that I am not particularly good at staying in touch with people I care about. I have reasons I think this is so, however, when I expressed them through that voice in my head they sound just like excuses. The simple truth is, I could and should do better at staying in touch. Certain friends know that they can count on me in a pinch. All of them, I hope, know that I am the guy they can call at 3am in the morning when everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. I’m there, no judgment, no recriminations.

I lost a friend in the last month. It was the result of neglect and inattention and simply not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I ignored this person long enough that when I did get back to him, I could see that he just wasn’t that interested in rekindling the fire of relationship. It hurt, but I had to own it completely. After the fact, I found a couple of emails from him that I had read but, wrapped up in myself, never acknowledged and returned. I hadn’t figured out what was necessary to keep that friendship alive and fed it. Every friendship needs to be fed. Some need more feeding than others.

“The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, not the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship.”                                                                                                                                  —Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Recently, I spoke with two friends, Shohrab Hossain and Greg Kuntz, to discuss two new hospital projects, one in Africa, one in Bangladesh. These are complex dynamics with a lot of different personalities in play, all jockeying for power, control and influence. The players all come from different cultures and environments. They are working hard to get the projects, to manage them. Maybe they will pull it off, get one or both, maybe they won’t. They both said they were in, and would stay the course, simply because they trusted me, that I was their friend. Whew! I was humbled. These are men I truly respect and that they feel this way about me matters; it matters a lot. To anyone who has ever trusted me with your friendship, I can only say, “Thanks. I hope I never let you down.”

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”                                                                                                     —Albert Camus

It makes sense to regularly reflect upon the relationships we call our friendships and assess how well we are nurturing them. That is a little bit of the “why” that has caused me to mention a few friends in particular in this blog. I want my friends to know I care about them, not as a leader or a follower, not as coach or coached, not as family or non-family, but as human beings I want to walk beside in the balance of my lifetime.

To my friends I haven’t mentioned, you know who you are. That’s another thing about friendship. Our stories may just be too long to share here (too many countries and too many years) or too personal. Some of you have been party to my life for so long, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”                                                                                                                                                                          Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

This blog is more than a response to the questions on friendship brought forth by my two friends. In response to them, this blog became a celebration of my friends, some new, some old, all important to me. This year of a world pandemic, where at least three of my friends have died, I’ve learned a few things. Life can be difficult. What makes it manageable is family and friends. It is important to stay connected with those who matter and make a difference. If those people are found in your workplace, so be it; just be mature in managing that friendship. With any friend you have, do a little better in nurturing the relationship than I have in the past; do what I intend to do in the future. Reach out and touch them, let them feel your love for them.

If this blog has any value for you, look out, I intend to follow it up with another on Friendship, talking about how to keep the friends we have. Some good books have been written about just that. I’ll share a bit of their substance with you.