How To Improve A Challenging Work Relationship

Relationships at work. Having friends at work makes you happy, period. My first big law job (a piece) was made not only bearable but actually fun by two of my workplace friends, Dale and Tim. We supported each other and admired each other a lot, but most of all we joked — joking, sharing meals, and catching late-night music shows together. Years later I still cherish those times (and we are still friends). In addition to the joys of friendship, the benefits of social relationships at work include better personal health and well-being and better collaboration. And as you and your co-workers mutually benefit from developing your relationship, the organization benefits as well. According to a 2022 McKinsey & Company report, “Social capital—or the existence of networks, relationships, shared norms, and trust among individuals, teams, and business leaders—is the glue that holds organizations together.” Basically glue.

But the pandemic, work from home, and waves of resignations and layoffs and changes have created distance and strained bonds in previously strong relationships. In my coaching work, I hear from clients that previously warm and collegial relationships have become more transactional, and that a lack of trust and “awkwardness” have turned into cross-functional partnerships. In some cases friction results in a tangible increase and decrease in productivity, and in others a less tangible, but still significant, loss of connection and personal satisfaction. Even “working husbands” are struggling to maintain their relationships.

Grabbing coffee and a walk with a coworker boosts happiness, health and productivity.GETTY

In a world where many of us aren’t going to the office, there’s an important relationship-building opportunity we’re missing, says John Gottman, renowned marriage and family therapist and relationship guru, Sliding Door Moments. These moments are the normal and seemingly trivial interactions that help keep relationships going. A sliding door moment begins with a “bid” – a statement that invites a response or confirmation. It could be a complaint about the boss, an expression of concern, or an observation. If a quote is picked up and acknowledged or validated, it is tantamount to the listener turning to the speaker, increasing trust and positivity; If a reference is removed, at least it’s a missed opportunity to build positivity, but it can also destroy the connection. And, amid Wi-Fi issues, participants being off-camera or muted, and people working too much and talking over each other, there are more bids on video conferencing than in person. I don’t really have statistics to back it up, but it must be true, right? The virtual world does not lend itself to sliding door moments.

We need to take a page from the couple’s therapy playbook and start having “date nights” with our co-workers. Wait! Is there no HR policy against this? To be clear, there shouldn’t be anything romantic, sexual, or disturbing about it. But date night isn’t just for romantic partners; This is for any relationship that needs a regular boost of positivity and connection. According to Brooklyn-based therapist Rebecca Sokol, the purpose of a date night — which doesn’t happen overnight — is to “foster feelings of connection with a significant other in your life.” Think of it as a team-building bond. Offsite. Think—1:1 aims to deepen relationships, have fun, and build positivity and resilience in workplace relationships. Let’s call it a work date night.

Here are the keys to having a great work date night that instills positivity and trusts with a colleague:

Be intentional Identify important relationships with colleagues, cross-functional stakeholders, and even the boss, and commit to investing time in building these important personal relationships. State your intention: “Sanjay, since we’re both working from home, I’ve missed an opportunity to connect in person. Let’s plan to meet on the same day and have a meal or a walk.” It’s also important that your intention is to build a strong working relationship (not romantic or sexual).

Keep it positive. Don’t try to solve problems or have difficult conversations. Couples therapists typically don’t ask their clients to broach difficult topics on date night; Instead, they urge couples to have fun together. The same goes for workplace relationships: the goals of a coworker date night are to have fun, make connections, and add to a shared emotional “bank account.” But, unlike a couple’s date night, nothing elaborate – no roses or candles! Grab a meal, coffee, or drink, or go for a walk. If you can’t meet in person, make it virtual. Zoom coffee or lunch is an option, or you can connect by phone and have a walk-and-talk.

Avoid shop talk and gossip. Until you build a more personal relationship, it’s easy to default to talking about work or fall into gossip or complaint mode. (This is the equivalent of a husband and wife talking about their children at dinner.) If you see this happening, refocus on making the connection. Be prepared with some good open-ended questions, such as, “What was your early career path like?” or “What is your dream vacation?” And be willing to actively listen and ask follow-up questions and/or share your story.
Listen for speech, and respond. Engage in active, empathetic listening and look for opportunities to connect, acknowledge and validate what you hear. Be encouraging and curious. “It seems you like to travel. Me too. I like an adventure. Where do you want to go next?” Even if you don’t feel a connection to the material, you can still show care and curiosity,” What did you find? Edgar, interested in stamp collecting? What’s the story behind your favorite stamp?”

To be vulnerable is to share about listening. Trusting connections are created when there is a “vulnerability loop” in which one person shares a weakness or weakness and another person picks up on it and also shares a weakness. This reciprocity creates a norm that it is safe to share vulnerability, which in turn fosters trust. Be sure to make personal disclosures while focusing on the other person. For example, “Sherry, I’m so sorry your mom got sick. I had experience caring for my elderly aunt, so I can empathize with how difficult it can be. Other family members Ask members to help you.” Getting support?

Minimize distractions. This should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. Your focus should be on the other person, so put your phone away and focus on being present with them.

I suggest you start with someone who is low-stakes and easy-going, who you have at least mildly positive feelings about to warm to. Then invite a more difficult colleague and see what happens. Commit to keeping one work date a week. Even if you don’t become besties, chances are that learning more about each other as human beings will improve your ability to work together. This is how social capital is built. Enjoy the glue!

Leave a Comment