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19 January 2024

Friendship, Connections, and Embracing the Unexpected

Written by
Susan MacDougall, Jennifer Garvey Berger, & Rehema Kutua

One of the tensions that we work with in complexity is the way our desire to create perfect things actually gets in the way of more-perfect things emerging. Or, conversely, that our desire to get good outcomes means that we overly engineer conditions so that they squeeze out the outcomes we haven’t already designed for.

And we can know a lot about how complexity works – how complex systems are made up of relationships between different parts of the system; how these relationships regulate in concert with each other; how they are hyperresponsive in surprising ways – and still be confused about what it means to shepherd them.

It is harder than it looks to create a supportive ecosystem for relationships to emerge, and also perhaps even more important than we imagine. The beautiful thing about this is, when we do attempt to create these conditions for relationships to unfold, we often learn surprising things.

Several of us have taken an interest in one particular kind of relationship, that is, friendship.

Susan, an anthropologist; Jennifer, a public intellectual and our CEO; and Rehema, a paediatrician and friendship educator; collaborated on a recent webinar called Developmental Friendship: How to Make Meaningful Connections at Work. The webinar brought together different things that we know about friendship: first, it can help us grow; second, it can keep us healthy; third, it relies on voluntary, supportive exchanges between us; fourth, that we are better at it than we think we are. It brought these things together with other things that we know about unleashing our complexity genius: in particular, that love and laughter help us do that. We think that creating the conditions for developmental friendship at work could be transformative for organizations and the people that are part of them. The webinar was our invitation to like-minded others, or those open to persuasion, that this idea is worth exploring.

We put out the call, and many responded. We had a fabulous session with wonderful participants. We talked about how to see and value your friends as they are, and how to support them as they dream up who they might be next. We spent time listening to each other’s values as they are now, and the values that we are growing into.

The magic of complexity, of course, is that once you agree to acknowledge it, it always makes itself known. As a reminder of this, we found connection emerging in a way that we had not anticipated. In addition to us laying out some of the things we know about friendship and about complexity, we set up two exercises carried out in small groups. In the first exercise, a speaker told a story of a peak experience – something that they had experienced that felt great. The other group members listened for the values held in that experience, and shared them with the speaker. The second exercise was very similar, but instead of the speaker talking about a peak experience, they talked about a wished-for experience, something they wanted to happen or dreamed would happen. Developmental friendship, we opined, was about seeing these two selves together, the person we are now and the person we are becoming.

These exercises took place in breakout rooms, so we sent trios and quads off randomly. We did not think much about the composition of the groups beyond determining the right number of participants. But when we came back from the first breakout, two participants shared their discovery with us: they had been high school classmates, and had not been in touch since their graduation some years (or decades) ago. They were surprised, and delighted, to find a past acquaintance in the Zoom room of the present. Was this a coincidence? Certainly. But there was serendipity in this coincidence, and we laughed that our carefully PowerPointed arc about past and present selves had taken a charming and unexpected shape.

This surprise was a gentle and humorous reminder that creating the conditions for friendship is not about forcing everyone into friendship, or scripting how relationships unfold so that everyone falls into a superficial friendliness. Friendships can unfold over decades, incorporating long absences and silences, and forming and re-forming as we change and our interests change. Development is also like that: our growth can take us in surprising directions. A complexity-friendly approach to developmental friendship will have to embrace the possibility of coincidence as well as maximize benefits to health and organizational performance.

What simple moves can you make to welcome developmental friendship into your life and your workplace?

Be available for people to connect with you. You could do this many different ways. Maybe you’d like to experiment with blocking out free time, or undistracted time, into your schedule, or sticking around in the conference room or lecture hall when you attend an in-person event. If it’s comfortable for you, you could leave your phone in your pocket and instead make eye contact with the people around you.

Talk about your plans and aspirations. Give your would-be developmental friends a window into what you would like to develop by sharing the projects you are incubating and the future activities you have planned. Try deliberately talking about your future self with your friends, naming anything from promotion aspirations to new hobbies to how, someday, you know you will not get annoyed when people walk slowly in front of you on the sidewalk. If you are sensitive to others’ comments, then try prefacing your sharing with some guidance on how you’d like them to respond. “I’m not ready to hear advice on this, but …”

Lend your support. You can be a developmental friend by taking an interest in your friend’s development. You could try listening when they talk about a wish or an aspiration and asking questions to show your curiosity. Or, you could ask them what kind of support they would like as they pursue whatever developmental avenue they are on.

Let go of what you are not enjoying. The great pleasure of friendship, and its socially distinctive attribute, is that it is voluntary! Family you are stuck with, friends you can choose. So embrace this principle of voluntariness to do what you enjoy in your friendships, and let go of any technique or practice that feels like too much work.

We hope you will continue to explore this topic with us – please be in touch with any thoughts or stories about developmental friendship as it appears from your perspective.

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