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Friendship: A Sign of High-Performing Schools?

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By Sajan George, the founder and chief executive officer for Matchbook Learning

At Matchbook Learning, we are nearing the final stretch of our first year of a challenging restart of a historically low-performing K-8 public school in Indianapolis that is now our charter school. We recently asked our staff to indicate via survey if they intended to return or not for next school year. Historically, in other cities and, candidly, for school turnarounds in general, year-one attrition is usually as low as one third and as high as one half. It was much to my amazement that 60 out of 62 staff members said they'd like to return. The two "No" decisions are due to upcoming marriages that will force a move to another city. Now, the cynical reader might indicate that no one will declare this early to their superiors that they do not intend to come back. However, that has not been our experience before. Regardless of whether you believe this intent-to-return response, it does have me thinking: What is the most important way to measure the staff culture in an organization?

We can quickly Google search a list of values of any high-performing organization with strong retention, and words like "trust," "empathy," "caring," "growth," "development," etc., will all come up. But I wonder if the key to building a culture where high-performing individuals want to return is a function of friendship.

Conventional wisdom would say it is not wise to make a lot of friends with people you work with as it may impede your ability to do your job well, take critical professional feedback, and turn "off" work outside of work hours.

I think about the friendships I've made since moving to Indianapolis within our school community and the friendships that staff members have made with each other, and I wonder if therein lies our culture. Friends speak truth to one another. Friends know how to be frank and to the point when they need to be and honest and patiently engaging when their friends need them to be.

I've never seen an organization track the number of friendships created between staff members. Again, that flies against the face of conventional wisdom. What if you need to fire someone, reprimand someone, or settle disagreements? Do you really want to be doing that with friends? But conventional wisdom is silent about the alternative. Who wants to work somewhere where they have no friends and it is clear that no one is friends with anyone?

There's only so many people you can be friends with, true friends with, at any one time. We go deep with just a few. Friendships tend to happen organically and are never forced. But if a place becomes friendly—where new friendships are formed easily over time—you are less likely to leave that place for another place of strangers.  

The Armed Forces and championship professional sports teams are two examples of high-performing organizations that forge deep friendships among their members not in spite of adverse, high-stress, high-impact work lives but because of them. It is core to their organization's success. Our experience at Matchbook Learning is similar. The intensity and adversity of turning around a school that is a significant institution in the community and marked by decades of poverty needs friendship among its staff members not as a byproduct of the work we do but as a very core driver of our culture that brings about transformative change. To transform, you have to first be transformed yourself. Friendship is the single best mechanism through which one is transformed. This has always been true.


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