Good work relationships are essential for our happiness at work. In his research for the Global Happiness Council in 2018, Jan-Emmanuel de Neve puts them as the number one factor for job satisfaction. They are also related to job loyalty and productivity and can have a significant impact on career success. The truth of the matter is that the quality of your work relationship can make you or break you at the workplace.
Having said that, we need to have clear expectations of what work relationships can give us and what we should find somewhere else.
I don’t like people much, and for the longest time, I tried to keep my distance at the workplace. I was polite and cooperative with everyone but focused primarily on the task and did not put much effort into building and maintaining relationships. That is until the expectations towards my role changed utterly. At the time, I was working as an HR generalist. My manager at the time implemented a new strategy aiming to bring us closer to the business and start acting more as business partners and not just as administrative support. It was exhilarating and challenging, but I had no idea what I was doing.
I had to earn the business’s trust and establish my credibility as their partner, but I felt I simply did not have enough knowledge to do that. So I threw myself into building close relationships with them. I figured that if they cannot trust me because of what I know, I would have them trust me because of who I am. I would say that it worked. I would be their go-to person for all their issues, be it HR or not, I would be the person with whom they would vent or share their successes. And because I learned fast, I like to think that I was able to provide some real value for their teams. But it was exhausting.
Maintaining so many close relationships at the workplace was draining. I also realized that I derived most of my professional and some of my personal validation from the quality of those relationships. And every time there was a bump in one of them, my professional self-esteem would crash.
Over time, I became more knowledgeable in my area, I changed several roles and my employer, and I reached some sort of a middle ground. I appreciate the value of good work relationships and put time and effort into building and maintaining them. Still, I have a clearer view of the boundaries that I need to keep, the potential pitfalls and unrealistic expectations towards them that can bring disappointment.
Work Relationships and Cooperation
Good work relationships foster cooperation, and for me, this is the most significant benefit they bring. “No man is an island” is especially true for today’s corporate world, and we cannot be successful without the cooperation of others.
In that sense, all work relationships are based on both giving and taking. We cannot expect support from others if we do not offer such. However, the people we interact with at the workplace often have their own goals and objectives, which sometimes may conflict or appear to conflict with ours. To make it even more complicated, competition or resistance to change often comes to play in our interactions at work. So we shouldn’t be discouraged if we don’t see full reciprocity from the other party in the relationship.
My go-to move has always been to offer support and cooperation first. Starting a workplace relationship with “I am here to help you” opens many doors and can lessen certain resistance and intimidation feelings. And even though I don’t always get as much as I give, I definitely get more than I would if I did not initiate the cooperation.
Work Relationships and Trust
Trust is essential for me in all relationships. For a long time, I was on an “all or nothing” basis in terms of trust in my work relationships the same way I am in my personal ones – I either trust someone completely, or the relationship has no value for me. But at some point, I realized things are not so black and white.
For starters, not all work relationships are created equal when it comes to trust.
Trust is paramount for an employee-manager relationship. The employee needs to trust in their manager’s integrity, competence and good intentions to feel secure in their work and to be able to take risks and excel. The manager needs to trust their employees’ transparency and commitment to the common goals so that the expected business results are achieved, and there is no need to micromanage.
Things are a bit different from peers and partners. Here, we often have conflicting priorities and agendas and pieces of the picture that we are not necessarily privy to. So we cannot reasonably expect that they would always be on our side or be completely transparent about their motives and decisions.
This was a difficult lesson for me to learn until a few years back when I nearly broke a meaningful work relationship with a peer. I had lost trust in his integrity and his good intentions towards my team and me. There was a lot of conflict, anger and escalations. We had many shared projects, and our teams were very interrelated, so we needed to find a resolution and rebuild. We had many conversations, cleared up some of the negative emotions and set new foundations for our relationship. I wish I had Brianna Barker Caza’s article “How to Mend a Work Relationship” at the time, and we would have probably done even better. But we did manage to come back from the edge and continue working together productively. And the most important moral from this experience was that I discovered that I can still cooperate with him, even though I don’t trust him completely. I now knew the parameters of our relationship and what I can rely on him for and operated within those limits.
Another thing to remember about work relationships is – you can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your co-workers. And while I can never consider a friend someone who would not help me hide a body if needed, I know I cannot expect such complete dependability from all my co-workers.
Work Relationships and Friendship
I have met many of my closest friends through work, and while I will always be grateful for them, I am very well-aware of the risks of workplace friendships.
Work is work, and friendship is friendship. It seems very clean-cut, but the truth is that we often expect (sometimes without realizing it) that our friends will be more lenient on us, or will work harder on our projects, or will defend us in conflict situations despite all costs.
And this is an unfair expectation that puts our friends in a difficult position to choose between compromising their work values or disappointing us.
Loss of Objectivity
The flip side to that is our own potential loss of objectivity. This is something we always need to be on the lookout for, especially if we are friends with a subordinate or someone who is in some other way dependent on our decisions in the workplace. I always try to double or triple check any decisions I make regarding friends at the workplace and sometimes ask for a second opinion to ensure that I am not favoring them without realizing it.
Perceived Loss of Objectivity
But even if you do that, people still may think that you are subjective, and you need to be ready to accept it and its consequences.
I had a close friend at my previous job. I was very open about our friendship, I made sure that I never base my decisions or advice on my relationship with him, I even had higher and harsher expectations from him than from anyone else. I thought I had done everything right.
Despite all that, his manager and my main internal client was not confident in my ability to be objective and asked me to stop working directly with my friend. It was a professional loss for me as the work with my friend and his team was challenging and interesting for me, but it was something I had to accept as a consequence of my decision to have a friendship at work.
I work in HR. This means that I might find myself in a situation where I sit across the table from my friend and have to tell them that their role is eliminated, or they are fired, or their performance is unsatisfactory.
It has not stopped me from having friends at work but requires a lot of reflection to ensure that I am strong and mature enough to handle such a situation. And that the friends I choose at work would also be strong and mature enough to recognize that I may be required to make tough decisions related to them as part of my job.
The Workplace Support Network
Apart from all else, good work relationships are crucial for remaining sane. Having a support network at work has kept me together in many strenuous moments and has pulled me out from quite a few tight spots.
I used to try to depend on one or two people for all the support I needed at work, which led to many disappointments as they could not always meet my unreasonable expectations. Now I build extensive networks and have different people I go to for different things – some for operational support, some for emotional support, some for advice and a couple when I feel like a failure and need someone to put me back together.
Good work relationships are one of the most important aspects of our experience at work. By managing our expectations towards them and showing cooperation, we can ensure that we reap all their positives and avoid feeling let down and disappointed.