Cold Hard Truths About The Workplace I Learned The Hard Way

co workers are not your friends

Have you ever been let down by a colleague who you thought was a friend? Or how about getting drunk at the office party? If so, you’re not alone.

But here’s the thing: You can’t mix your professional and personal life. And that’s not a great thing to hear, right? We all desperately want to have a great time at work. And I get it.

You spend more time at work than any other place in your life, so it’s important to enjoy what you do. But doing what you love and workplace rules are two different things.

That took me a long time to understand. Granted, I’m a stubborn idiot who has to learn things the hard way. But one thing I’ve learned about the workplace is this: Things are not what they seem.

Here are five cold hard truths about the workplace. Understanding them will help improve your professional life.

1. Co-Workers Are Not Your Friends

You’re supposed to be best friends with your co-workers. At least, that’s what people who call the shots at organizations want you to believe. But don’t be fooled by all the phoniness.

It all starts with the recruitment process. Recruiters, HR folks, hiring managers, they all try to convince you that they have an open culture. That they value teamwork. And honesty.

It’s all BS. All organizations are the same. Why? Because people are the same. We just can’t help it. We’re all competitive. It’s naïve to pretend that’s not true.

Is that a bad thing? No, not at all. Just don’t look at your co-workers as friends because you expect too much from them. It’s a whole different dynamic. At work, people are there to earn a living.

What do you think? That they will sacrifice a paycheck for your friendship? Not going to happen. Just be mindful of that and do your job.

Stay professional. And have a good time with people at work. See them as professional relationships. Nothing more. Nothing less.

2. Perception Is Reality

This one is my least favorite truth and the one that I never got used to. And probably never will. That’s my flaw.

Look, you can pretend it’s not about appearances at work, but it is. Looking busy and actually being busy are the same thing.

Why? Because perception equals reality. If you’re perceived as the office clown, you are one. No matter how hard you work.

If you’re perceived as a naysayer who always goes home at 5 pm, you are one. And no one will offer you any opportunities.

Now, all this doesn’t mean you should ONLY be about appearances. Of course not. The reality is much more subtle. It’s about understanding that you have to be ‘visibile’, as people at corporations love to call it, and professional.

3. Open Doors Are Not Really Open

How familiar does this scenario sound?

You’re in a meeting. And your manager or co-worker says that you’re free to speak your mind. In fact, you’re always welcome to walk in the office of your boss. “The door is always open.” Literally and figuratively.

So you decide to speak your mind. You listen to them and try to be honest with your feedback. What happens? Suddenly, you become an enemy. A defector. Someone who doesn’t fit in.

Think that scenario is too harsh? Think again. That’s what brutal honesty does to people. Why? Feedback, criticism, etc, is often viewed as an attack. That has nothing to do with you. Most people are bad at receiving feedback. Again, we’re human beings. We don’t like it.

So never be too honest. Does that make you fake? No, it makes you empathetic. Work on the way you deliver your feedback or criticism.

The ignorant people always say something like: “Why the hell should I change? Those people should grow up and not be offended by my criticism.”

And that’s exactly the problem with ‘honest’ people. They’re idiots (me included). Why? You can’t change others. But you can change yourself.

4. Couples Are Targets

Research shows that the more you see someone, the more attractive they become. That’s why you’re suddenly attracted to that co-worker you didn’t notice before. And on one TGIF drinks, you start talking, some light touching happens, and boom: A spark. So you grab dinner together.

And the rest happens automatically. Before you know it, you’re in a relationship with a co-worker. Shit happens. And I’ve been there too. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But it sure can be if you handle it wrong. Because couples often get this ‘us against the rest’ feeling at work. And that’s not good. Because if you rely too much on each other, you become targets of gossip. And that kind of stuff is not helpful when you want to make your next move in the company.

It’s best to keep your love life and work life separated. Literally.

5. Irreplaceable People Get Special Treatment

“It’s not fair. John gets away with everything!” Yes, because John is a superstar. That’s how it works.

Every firm, business unit, and team has a John or Johanna. Someone who’s accountable for the majority of the results. Someone the company relies on. Naturally, Johanna is favored and gets special treatment. And what happens? Others get jealous and say it’s not fair.

Sure, most businesses are very obvious about the way they reward their Johns. They could be more subtle. But when they do that, they risk that John or Johanna leaves their company. And when that happens, the company loses. You can cry or complain about it. But you’re not helping your company or yourself.

The truth is: Some people are irreplaceable, and some can be replaced easily. It’s time to become the former.

There you go. These are my observations about the workplace. It’s not all based on scientific research. It’s based on my experience and common sense. Can I be wrong? For sure. In fact, I want to be wrong.

So please, prove me wrong and make change happen at your company. Because I hope that these truths become misconceptions in the future.

But we need you to make that happen.



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  1. As usual, an enjoyable and insightful read. I have to mention that I also really enjoy listening to your thoughts on the podcast, which I wish came out more frequently!

  2. I can see it now…. DF Common Sense Academy “What you wish your mama would have taught you before letting you loose into the world.” lol. It’s funny I feel like I knew this already but to see it presented in such a straight forward yet empathetic way some how drove it home for me.

  3. You’ve nailed a major underlying problem in the workplace right on the head! It was there in the 60’s (likely before your were born!) and throughout all the shifts in the workplace systems and management styles, it was still there three years when I retired. People confuse the line between friend and co-worker. Over the years, when I’d hear someone complain about a co-worker, my answer was: “You should be grateful you’re not married to them!” – In other words, if people just focused on doing their work and working together to make each person’s “job” more pleasant and productive and leave the personal drama at the door, a lot of angst would be avoided – To do this, one has to have a personal and social life outside the workplace (trust me, it will provide enough of its own drama!) – But unfortunately, a lot of folks only find “friends” where they work and also take their job way too seriously and thus their “emotional” center overrides their “thinking” center. It is possible not to like someone’s personality yet work quite peacefully side by side, if you bear in mind: “It’s just a job”. Sometimes, one has to “make a game” of the whole thing, and with a bit of psychological sleuthing, you can usually find something that triggers the “nasty” person’s pleasant side — find out some aspect of their job they like, what their strengths are, and base your co-worker relationship on that and be grateful at the end of each day, that they are not your friend (or mate) in real life. There’s my hard-earned 70 year-old take on the whole thing. And Darius: keep your insights and podcasts coming!

  4. From your letter about Cold hard truths in the workplace: “So never be too honest. Does that make you fake? No, it makes you empathetic. Work on the way you deliver your feedback or criticism.”
    I always wrestle with honesty and transparency. So I’m glad I took the time to read todays notes.

  5. Agree agree agree!!! I am both part of a couple and irreplaceable – I deal with both super professionally but I am fully aware of my limitations just nice to hear it said by someone else. I’ve completely come to the realisation that my coworkers are not my best friends but love to be around me but sometimes suck my energy dry and I dress to be perceived as being smart and again professional- it really matters how you carry yourself. I say what I need to say, diplomatically but this again is learned behaviour from mistakes in thinking I had free reign in the past. Super happy I’ve worked it all out thus far and Darius you make me feel sane. Thank you

  6. If it is mostly about competition, visibility, politics and no friendship it is no surprise that 87% of people are disengaged in the workplace. It sounds all pretty miserable. From my 12 years of corporate experience, I can say it does not have to be this way. Between 2010 and 2012 I worked in a super collaborative team, where people were friends. We helped each other and genuinely cares for each other. Then the culture changed. New manager, new values, new targets and a highly competitive environment was created. From personal experience, I can confidently say that humans are not all super competitive. This stems from shared values and beliefs, together with rewarded behaviours. If you reward individual performance over team performance, you create competition. This is created not innate. Individualism is a trait of the American culture as of many others, and it is very much alive in the workplace.

  7. I think it depends with the type of organization. It may because I come from a different type of working environment being that I’m in Kenya. However, this is a different perspective and I’ll take it some of it home.

  8. I agree with the general gist of your arguments, and have experienced many of the negative issues you discuss. However, I have seen quite a bit of difference between organizational cultures and suspect you are describing a kind of worst case scenario. You then talk about how we should try to change these organizational trends as an afterthought, which contradicts your point that all people and organizations are the same and (sic) cannot be changed. This is the problem with framing your perceptions as ironclad rules/norms, vs predictable tendencies and patterns. It smacks of a “straw man” argument which you will later disentangle for those who care to read further (those who want to be irreplaceable). As I noted earlier, I like the drift of your argument and think you provide a lot of sage advice, but I like what Linda says when she speaks of work experience that is diametrically opposed to the values engendered by this “big brother” work culture. Some organizations are working to be more collaborative and to buck the trends you describe. I am curious about what types of work experience served as the models for your perception about work in general

  9. Is it possible to have friends in the workplace, the answer is yes. But most of the time though, real friendship happens once you’ve stopped working for the same company. At least that’s based on my experience. I used to be so honest about what I think and what I feel and I paid dearly for it. It took me a long time to accept that in the workplace, people operate differently. And you are definitely right, nobody likes a very honest person in the office.

  10. Hey Darius! That’s an excellent article. I just wanted to add some of my thoughts to it.

    The first topic “Co-Workers Are Not Your Friends” is usually right, but I think you can make really good friendships at the workplace. That’s a natural process by spending time with people. I like the part when you say “Stay professional” because even if you become friends, you should still be professional at work. This is specially important when you work directly with your friend. The friendship shouldn’t affect the professional relationship.

    The second topic “Perception Is Reality” works well for the short term, but if you are not able to demonstrate good results in the long run, the perception about you will be very different. If you spend extra hours at work but you can’t get your tasks done, you won’t be seen as hard worker, but rather as a slow and distracted worker. I also believe that once you prove that you are really competent, no one will ever question your work again in the future. What I mean is that you should try to be “Irreplaceable People”, as you mention in the end of the article.

    There is a lot of good information in this article. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  11. Most of what you wrote stands especially the honest part ….. But what really gets to me is the Irreplaceable people part. I would be considered a Johanna in my workplace and as you rightly put it a lot of stuff has been said about me which isn’t nice but I got to where I am by working my butt like hell. As much as I don’t like being the company gist I can’t help it because I have a vision I am working towards. Thanks for this article.

  12. A manager and mentor I had early in my career told me about your point 1. Well, actually he said “In business, trust no one. Not because no one is trustworthy but in a pinch they will always put their interests ahead of yours”. Any time since if I’ve forgotten that I’ve suffered for it. Your points 2 and 5 have also been prominent in my career path; i.e. at times in my own career and in that of others I’ve observed. The biggest problems surface and become a corporate cancer when politicians are perceived as ‘irreplaceables’ and actual substance superstars are perceived as easily replaced.

  13. Very good article and I agree with most of it. Co-workers are NOT your friends is a cold, hard truth. I’ve become very good friends with some of my FORMER co-workers after we no longer worked together. My rule is and has always been that I don’t mix business with my personal life on any level.

    Perception is reality…until you change the reality. I am EXTREMELY punctual but as I have told my current boss and former bosses, punctuality is a two-way street. I arrive 30 minutes before my day starts and get right to work. At 5:00 PM, I am out the door, leaving behind a clean desk and no pending issues. Every. Single. Day. I have gotten resistance to this but you have to be firm and get them to understand that there is no purpose to you lingering around when you have completed all you needed to do for the day and exceeded expectations. They eventually get it.

    Honesty and the “irreplaceables” should include a third category: “the chosen ones”. Every company has them. They are typically not the most efficient or hard working but for some reason that no one really knows or is willing to reveal, they can do no wrong in the eyes of upper management and the executives. It took me years to learn the politics of the workplace and choose my language carefully. They should teach this in college as a required course for everyone going for a four-year degree.

    Another art that I feel I have mastered is the art of CYA. Co-workers are ruthless when it comes to throwing others under the bus. Trust me, I have tire-track scars on my back to prove it. Learn to cover your ass. Document anything and everything that could possibly get you under the bus.

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