Skip to Content

It’s Time to Stop Making Fake Friendships at Work

Young woman listening to colleagues talkingYoung woman listening to colleagues talking

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How do you build authentic relationships at work? is by Ryan Smith, CEO and founder of Qualtrics.

I’ll never forget the time when a complete stranger came up to me and said, “Hey, Ryan. I don’t know you, but let’s go have an experience together.” And while it sounds really creepy, it wasn’t. The point he was making was simply that authentic relationships come from going through experiences with other people, not from water-cooler conversation or mid-day coffee chats. We ended up hiking through a Mexican jungle and eating one of the most memorable meals of my life. It’s an experience I will always remember, and that stranger has become a very close friend over the years.

Anyone who lived in college dorms their freshman year knows exactly what I’m talking about. Relationships come from shared experiences.

It’s no different in the workplace. Now, more than ever, employees are looking for an experience, not a job. That’s especially true of millennials, who are expected to make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. They want experiences at work that give them a story they can tell for a long, long time. There is something about the experience of chasing a big vision, learning how to execute, and persevering through enormous challenges that creates relationships unlike any other.

See also: It’s Time to Give Your Employees More Freedom

Just ask famous groups like the Paypal (PYPL) Mafia, the Yahoo (YHOO) Alumni, and the Google (GOOG) network. They all came from those kinds of environments. The relationships they built during the lean and scrappy times are the kind that last. These alumni weren’t just friendly coworkers or classmates. They were battle-tested. They had seen each other at their scrappiest, most creative and driven times. They also undoubtedly saw each other at their worst and their best. Those experiences build strong, lasting relationships.

We know something about that at Qualtrics. We bootstrapped for the first 10 years, and spent the first six in the basement. During that time, we had our fair share of tough, lean days. But I wouldn’t trade those for anything. The relationships I built then are some of the strongest I have to this day. You don’t have to be in the basement together to form that kind of bond or to engender it among your employees.

As we’ve moved from a basement startup to a multi-billion dollar business, we’ve had to evolve. But that doesn’t mean moving on from the things that got us to where we are. We’re still focused on making sure that everyone at our company has the experience of building something big and working on hard problems together. To make that work at scale, we’ve had to add another element, which is a key part of authentic relationships: developing a culture of feedback. For us, that means radical candor.

Radical candor is a framework developed by one of our board members, Kim Scott. Her framework describes the different attitudes people take when giving feedback. Some people are so afraid of offending someone that they withhold helpful feedback. Others are too aggressive because they care too much about an issue and not enough about the person. Kim instructs us to bridge the gap by telling people they have to “give a damn.” When your colleagues know that you genuinely care about them and their success, the criticism you dole out is never gratuitous, but always in their best interest.


Creating a culture of radical candor isn’t easy. It requires that everyone in the organization be bought in. Everyone has to “give a damn” about the company and about everyone in it, from the top executives to the newest interns. That kind of culture is critical to personal and organizational growth and to building strong work relationships. It means that you know your colleagues want you to succeed and that, win or lose, you’re in it together. With that mindset, you’ll know any criticism comes from a place of encouragement because everyone is working toward the common goal of creating something great that will truly help others.

In the end, all relationships are built off of shared experiences. So give your team the opportunity to chase big goals and try new things, and do it within the context of a radically candid culture. When people give a damn, you’ll see them do amazing things; and they will forge incredible relationships every step along the way.