Opinion

opinion | Ron Friedman

Don’t dread the office holiday party, just fix it

Istockphoto

Every year around this time, a fresh crop of articles appear with advice on how to survive the office holiday party. If you paid close attention last December, you now know the seven conversation starters that get people talking, why it’s best not to dance with a coworker of the opposite sex (“this will definitely spark rumors”), and the three-word fail-safe that’s guaranteed to give the impression that you’ve been listening: “Tell me more!”

It may be time for a new approach. If the goal is to foster meaningful workplace connections, most office holiday parties fall desperately short of meeting this objective.

In theory, social workplace events should create opportunities for employees to extend their network, develop a richer understanding of their colleagues, and strengthen existing friendships. The reality is much different. Office parties tend to isolate people into groups of those they already know, trapping them in conversations that feel strained and rarely contribute to deeper bonds.

Advertisement

It’s a wasted opportunity, and not just because people could be having a more enjoyable time. For organizations interested in achieving top performance, creating high-quality working relationships is a requirement.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Over the past decade, researchers have uncovered compelling evidence that feeling connected to our colleagues makes us more effective at work. We become more willing to ask for help, exchange ideas, and share resources. Studies show that employees with stronger workplace relationships are not only more engaged, they’re also less likely to quit or even call in sick.

Companies should be investing in the quality of workplace relationships. The problem is that from a relationship-building perspective, the office holiday party gets it all wrong.

So what’s the alternative?

Here’s one research-backed idea: Find a novel, collaborative activity that allows colleagues to master new skills by working together. For example, a group cooking class, indoor rock climbing, tickets to a murder mystery dinner, or improv training at a local comedy club.

Advertisement

Experiences of shared struggle and cooperation are a natural catalyst for group bonding. In times of hardship, human beings instinctively seek closer connections with others. Studies also suggest that engaging in interactive rather than passive activities bolsters relationship quality and leads people to feel closer to one another. By taking the focus off the conversation and placing it squarely on an activity itself, interactive tasks also reduce self-consciousness and make connections easier to grow. This can be especially helpful for the introverts in a group, who are often more successful bonding shoulder-to-shoulder with a colleague rather than face-to-face.

Introducing an unfamiliar task offers another benefit: it makes existing status differences between colleagues less important. Research indicates that people are less likely to form close friendships with a colleague whose standing in the workplace is much higher or much lower than theirs. “Status distance” — as it’s called by psychologists — can serve as a barrier to the development of close relationships.

How is workplace status determined? In part, from an employee’s ability to contribute toward valued organizational goals.

Taking people out of their comfort zone, however, provides a new frame. It temporarily renders colleagues’ workplace abilities irrelevant and presents an entirely new context for evaluating competence. Suddenly, an intern can contribute as much to a team’s performance as a CEO. For a few short hours, everyone is on equal footing.

There are other strategies for taking the edge off holiday get-togethers. Consider letting employees choose the activity, by inviting them to nominate and vote on group outings. Alternatively, organizations can offer employees a choice, making several options available. Better that people have meaningful interactions within smaller groups than require everyone to endure the same lackluster experience in the same room. Of course, there’s always the option of having the entire team regroup afterwards for dessert.

Advertisement

It may seem foolhardy to waste an afternoon on something that feels so far afield from work. But studies have linked playful experiences to creativity, flow, and engagement — all vital to organizational performance. Also worth noting, the laughter an unusual activity can spark is likely to yield its own rewards. Humor in the company of others promotes a sense of closeness.

Plus, think back to the best workplace relationships you’ve ever had. How many of them started at a cocktail party?

Ron Friedman is a social psychologist and author of the book, “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.”