Relationships at Work

Every relationship is work!

OK, guys, before you start getting any steamy ideas; this piece is about work relationships – not the romantic kind that could ensue after that interesting chat with the cute colleague.


Success at work is essentially a result of how good our relationships at work are. We may have the highest qualifications and experience required for our job but if we are unable to effectively relate to our boss, colleagues, team or external stakeholders – we are likely to struggle, if not fail, in our job.


The interesting thing though is that the quality of these relationships is not only dependent on us. By their nature, relationships are a two-way matter. How we treat and connect to others is as relevant as how others treat and connect to us. Here is the catch – there is a central party who essentially influences how good or bad our relationships may turn out – and that is, us or specifically, you.


So, assuming you are doing a good job of managing your relationships, it therefore would seem logical that your world at work is all roses and light, right? Nope - unfortunately, not. The beauty and bane of relationships at work is that you are dealing with human nature. The bottom line is that people are so incredibly different - and that should be great, because it makes interactions exciting and unpredictable. The problem is that, there are plenty of difficult people at work and dealing with them sucks. (Yeah, I said it.) However, politically correct we want to be, the truth is that difficult people can be a pain – not just emotionally draining but they can be a barrier to individual, team and organizational success.


Don’t get me wrong – I have met some of the most amazing people at work. Many of whom have become very valuable friends and mentors to me. Indeed, because we spend so much time at work, many of our friendships start there. The opposite is also true. Some of the most difficult times in my life have actually been at work – and, triggered or created by people. (My piece on imposter syndrome – tells a story of some of the most difficult people I have dealt with at work.)


The idea of writing something on this came from my niece, and as I contemplated it, my thoughts went to the question of what makes bad or good relationships at work. When do we decide that that person is good or bad? This took me back to re-walk the journey of my career and this is what comes to mind.


I think that we categorize relationships at work as “good” when we feel we can trust the people around us. Trust is one of the key psychosocial concepts that Brené Brown consistently talks and writes about. She defines trust as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person's actions.” I find this a very apt definition because when you trust others you really are opening yourself up to them and trusting that they will not harm you, using their knowledge of you. And the “you” could be anything – your weaknesses, your mistakes, your private life, your fears or inadequacies. People never use positive things like kindness, success, intelligence or wealth to shame or mock others. So, at work, we mostly worry about being shamed for mistakes, knowledge or skill deficits and sometimes, the messes at home (e.g. a divorce) or that romantic relationship that you would like to keep private.


I find that in the work environments I was most “at home”, it was because I trusted my colleagues. Or at least those I was close to. We never shamed each other for mistakes or a lack of knowledge or skill. We never shamed colleagues going through difficulties in their private lives (e.g. a physically abusive boyfriend). In fact, we were comfortable with the vulnerability that comes with saying: ‘I know this is my job, but I honestly don’t know what to do about …” Such moments naturally panned into support or teaching moments where we would rally around the affected person to share our knowledge (if we knew what to do) or at least work together to find the solution, if we were as clueless on the matter as they were. And then, when we referred to such past moments, it was with the satisfaction and awe of winning together; or, to cheekily have a good laugh at how lost our colleague was… it was never to shame them.


The other thing that comes to mind is intention. I remember a time when two of my colleagues who we served with on the senior management team called me to an ‘intervention’ meeting. When a meeting starts with: “there is something you need to know …”, you know that 9 chances out of ten, you really don’t want to know – it is likely to be something negative. In this case, one of my team members had reported that I was intimidating and unkind to her. The full story is too long to tell but the crux of the issue was that she had painted such a bad picture of my treatment toward her that my colleagues were in disbelief. Now this is where having a great record and reputation serves you well – the person that this staff member was describing to my colleagues did not sound like me. Their meeting with me was two-fold – to address the staff concerns and examine the facts of the story. Long story short, the staff member had major performance deficiencies that were leading towards a non-confirmation after her probation. She probably saw the writing on the wall and was trying to lay ground for foul play. Her intention was to lace the truth with enough damaging lies to discredit my evaluation as her manager. My colleagues, however, worked with the intention of finding the truth. I think that in many ways, our internal radar is always gauging the intention behind people’s actions at work. When we gauge these intentions as pure, not intending to harm us, we can comfortably say we have good relationships at work.


I think that reliability is another thread that determines how we feel. When we know we can rely on our colleagues to support us, we are more likely to enjoy these relationships. When people keep their word, we feel we can rely on them e.g. delivering their commitments, meeting agreed deadlines or providing that additional information you needed, standing up for you when you are in a difficult situation – whatever it is. We are more likely to categorize our colleagues as “good’ when they do what they say and mean what they say. When you know that you can count on them no matter what. That they have your back – whether you are there or not.


I find that however hard and challenging the job is, I have enjoyed work environments where people care about others. And I am not just talking about politeness, hugs and kisses at work. I am talking about the kind of care that is thoughtful about others vis a vis their work and contributions. I have worked in environments where my boss and colleagues were sensitive to the peaks and troughs of my workload and went out of their way to support, make reasonable adjustments or at the least, empathize when work pressure was high. They found ways to ease the burden. Conversely, I have worked in a situation where, by virtue of the structure and delivery model, I was assigned on 60% of the workload of the team; while my other 4 colleagues shared the remaining 40%. Despite my pleas to my supervisors, it took 2 years before anyone acted to even out the workload. The stress and impact on my health and well being is another story on its own – I am sure you can guess what that did to my trust level.


There is a lot more we can say about this topic, but I think most will revolve around the above. Indeed, if your relationships at work are built on trust, good intentions, reliability and care, you are also more likely to let your guard down and genuinely connect with your colleagues. These are the makings of a team that works hard and plays hard. The kind that have fun at work and deliver amazing results.


If this resonates with you, drop us a comment below. I trust you are enjoying great relationships at work … always rooting for you!

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