BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Roles you need around you ...

This was one of those books that I sought out after it being noted/recommended/referenced in another book I was reading/reviewing. While this happens from time to time, it isn't a given that I'll “pull the trigger” on ordering, and it's even less frequent that I really like the title in question. It turns out that what was recommending this book in the one that referenced it is that this is the summarization of the research done by the Gallup Organization on the question (and proposed matrix of relationships) of friendship. Tom Rath's Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without is based on eight million interviews, assorted experiments, and a deep delving into the existing literature. At one point in here, the author notes:
As much as I love numbers and statistics, I could easily spend a couple hundred pages discussing the findings from our research, but that would cause most of you to close this book for good.
... and this is sort of reflected in the organization and flow of the book. There is clearly a sense that there is a mass of data behind the reasonably breezy writing, but the nuggets of data only come out in bits and pieces, rather than in a more wide-reaching context.

The book is also divided up somewhat oddly, with four “parts”: Friends In Life, Friends At Work, Developing Vital Friendships, and Building Vital Friendships At Work … plus the last quarter of the book being taken up by several Appendixes. The core bit on the “Vital Friends” doesn't come in until Chapter 11, following six chapters in the “Life” section, and three in the “Work” part. Most of these are based on “stories” about various people the author had interviewed or studied, ranging from a homeless man (whose life had spiraled down from a very stable and successful point, largely due to his losing his friend-based support system at work) to the friendship between Roosevelt and Churchill. One of the factoids presented here grabbed my attention:
During our teenage years we spend nearly one-third of our time with friends. For the rest of our lives, the average time spent with friends is less than 10%.
The “Life” section especially deals with ways that friends influence us, from our diets (we're 5x as likely to have, for example, a healthy diet, if our “best friend” has one), to our surviving disease (in one study, subjects that had fewer than four friends were more than twice as likely to die than those with four or more … although the effect plateaued at four, having more didn't increase the survival benefit).

One of the concepts that keeps coming up here is that of a “best friend”, which appears to have a special influence in one's satisfaction (or “engagement”) with work. Rath points out:
You might notice that we used the term “best friend” in our interviews. We did so because our early research indicated that having a “best friend” at work – rather than just a “friend” or even a “good friend” – was a more powerful predictor of workplace outcomes. Apparently, the word “friend” by itself has lost most of its exclusivity.
... this perhaps anticipating the effects of the terminology of social media where one might have thousands of “friends” without really knowing any but a handful of them. The effects of having a “best friend” at work are pretty dramatic:
Overall, just 30% of employees report having a best friend at work. If you are fortunate enough to be in this group, you are seven times as likely to be engaged in your job. Our results also suggest that people without a best friend at work all but eliminate their chances of being engaged during the workday.
Despite this, many companies actively disapprove of outside-of-work socialization of employees … with a third of the 80,000 managers surveyed opposing these friendships, and only 18% of organizations encouraging employee fraternization … and some going so far as to have anonymous 1-800 numbers set up to report on fellow employees seen socializing outside of work!

And, while having one “best friend” at work improves job engagement by 12x:
People with at least three close friends at work were 96% more likely to be extremely satisfied with their life.
... that's a pretty amazing stat – but its based on their research cross-referencing questions about how many close friends the respondents had, how many of those were at work, and questions about general life satisfaction. Still, a majority of companies are ambivalent to opposed to employee friendships.

This brings us to the “Vital Friends” of the title, and Rath kindly defines what he means by this: 1. Someone who measurably improves your life. 2. a person at work or in your personal life who you can't afford to life without. … although he does go into a bit more depth on it. One thing that he describes as “the big 'aha!' for our research team” is the assorted study respondents describing friends who were very good at a few things, which led to the conceptualizing of the “eight Vital Roles”. I wish the author had put in a concise one-line description for each of these, rather than the (admittedly, more nuanced) paragraph that each section starts with. However, I'm going to grab the intro sentence of each just to give you the broad strokes of what these entail:

            Builder – great motivators, always pushing you toward the finish line
            Champion – stands up for you and what you believe in
            Collaborator – a friend with similar interests – the basis for many great friendships
            Companion – is always there for you, whatever the circumstances
            Connector – a bridge builder who helps you get what you want
            Energizer – your “fun friends” who always give you a boost
            Mind Opener – the friends who expand your horizons and encourage you to embrace new ideas, opportunities, cultures, and people
            Navigator – the friends who give you advice and keep you headed in the right direction

In each of these there are repeating parts, the defining paragraph, “(role)s In Action” which has quotes from respondents referring to this sort of friend in their life, a bunch of blank lines where you are supposed to list “Who Are Your (role)s?”, some action points suggesting how you could be “Strengthening Your (role)s”, similar bits for “Creating New (role)s In Your Life”, and things to do “If You Are A (role)”.

So, you're asking yourself, how the heck am I supposed to know who's what with this?, well, there is a web site at which has apparently been simplified since this book came out (in 2006), which is good in that it no longer requires a number from the book jacket to access it, but is, I take it, much less comprehensive than what's mentioned in the text. It does, however, let you take a friend, and walk through a battery of questions, which end up with an analysis of your relation to that friend in terms of these “vital roles”, which you can print at the end. Obviously, the intent here is that you will plug in some sub-set of your Rolodex and come up with a list to work with.

I found the transition back to the fourth “Building Vital Friendships At Work” part of the book somewhat bizarre, especially as its four chapters barely take up 20 pages, but I guess this does sort of reveal the focus that Gallup has for this – as a kind of “workplace guide to friendship” or the like. As noted, the book has a substantial portion of its page count dedicated to appendixes, with the first one being a reasonably useful “Your Questions”, where the author addresses 12 of the most common inquiries he'd received. Next there's a case study that starts out with a factoid that just 17% of employees feel their organization's leadership encourages friendships. Here he looks at the automobile industry, from the heavy-handed management style of Henry Ford, through the classic years of the “Big Three”, and into more recent efforts (often by foreign manufacturers opening plants in the U.S.) to change the “us vs. them” tone. This is followed by a “Technical Report” on the research, which is filled with tables, and sections like “Factor Analyses” and “Criterion Relatedness” (cue eyes glazing over). Finally there's the “Gallup Research On Friendships” which goes into the who/how/what stuff that was tapped for the book … oddly, back here is the only place with some fancy “data visualization”, a graphic with three 3D pie charts showing degrees of work engagement in three different employee “friend states” – the book would have been greatly improved had they included this sort of thing at several places in the text!

Anyway, as mentioned, Vital Friends is a bit long in the tooth at this point (a decade or more old), but I don't suppose the core issues addressed here are likely to have shifted significantly in the intervening years. It is, no doubt, the reason there wasn't a comment regarding social media in relation to the note that the word “friend” by itself has lost most of its exclusivity, as in 2006, this was hardly a factor, and certainly not as ubiquitous as today.

This does appear to still be in print, so you could probably get a copy via your favorite brick-and-mortar book vendor, however, there are used copies of this out there for under a buck, and amazingly, the on-line big boys (as of this writing) have new copies going at a 72% discount … such a deal!

To sum up, this is a quite accessible book dealing with a big research project … which, as the author is quoted up top admitting, could have been a thick mass of the sort of stuff that is here limited to Appendix C. It's an interesting read, and just on the volume of data involved, makes a reasonably persuasive case for the suggested definitions and dynamics of the assorted “vital roles”.

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Tags: book review
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