Relationships are the frameworks by which we define our connections. Whether with concepts, objects, or other people, everything in our lives is defined in terms of relationships. We spend approximately 25% of our time at work, so it is worth exploring the nature of our work relationships and how they impact us. How important are our work relationships? How do we go about building healthy relationships with our coworkers, leaders, and teams?
There are a multitude of research papers out there that talk to the importance of strong work relationships. A strong relationship improves collaboration within teams. It enables team flow, and it provides a sense of psychological safety. As an introvert and someone who, while open, is particular about what and how much personal detail I share with others, I would add a strong relationship does not have to be deep. We don’t have to be BFFs with our coworkers. We just need four elements to create a strong and solid relationship.
A strong relationship is comprised of trust, acceptance, equity, and open communication. We need to feel trust in our coworkers. We rely on them when working together. We accept one another and understand what our individual roles contribute to each other’s success. Team members agree what a fair share of the work looks like. We give credit where it is due. Communication is open and honest; we ask questions and take time to get to know one another.
I am a big proponent of living an integrated life. My work and personal lives are not two separate, unrelated things battling for supremacy over my time. They are part of the greater whole that is me. As such, I am at my best when I allow them to wax and wane in harmony, to shift like the tides. When things align just right, they form a giant wave that propels me further and faster than any single component could on its own. I have found that I am at my best and happiest when I work with a company allowing the flexibility to maintain an integrated life, build strong relationships and as Tony Hsieh espoused, “create fun and a little weirdness”.
Early in my career, the team I worked with had an eclectic mix of personalities. We had people working at all hours of the day as suited their preference. We had the four elements of strong relationships in spades. We delivered our best for our clients. We trusted that anyone on the team would have our back if and when needed. I enjoyed working and being around my coworkers. I was creative, took risks, and inhabited my authentic geeky self. Even if someone didn’t grok a particular reference I would throw out, my brand of weird was accepted and celebrated by the team.
All the above factors helped me build success quickly. It led to a promising opportunity that, ironically, made my career miserable. I had the opportunity to help build a new organization. As part of that, I built out the network infrastructure and IT systems of the company. I had very little experience, but lots of ideas and enthusiasm. A great team of consultants helped me bring those ideas to reality. The miserable parts were the relationships. I was a single, twenty-something with somewhat socially liberal ideology working with a team of highly conservative individuals 15 to 20 years my senior. Everyone was focused on the mission and the money. There didn’t seem to be time for fun; only long hours, and a horrid commute that eroded my energy day by day.
I stayed with that group for longer than I probably should have. I was invested in what I had built, pushing the boundaries of collaborative applications and electronic communications at the time. I ignored the voice in my head that never felt safe until the ephemeral Cassandra was vindicated. I was laid-off after almost a decade of blood, sweat, and tears.
I am happy to say I did learn from the experience. I now work with teams and companies where I am my authentic self. I build strong relationships but also align my personal sense of purpose with that of my teams and my stakeholders. As Jenn Lim puts it in Beyond Happiness, I align my ‘me’, with the ‘we’ and the community. I wake up excited to interact with my coworkers. We tackle the challenges of the day and I share my thoughts, insights, and experience where they make an impact. I have taken my learning from the past. I do my best to be the person that my younger self needed for those around me.
Work relationships can be challenging. It requires being vulnerable in a context that we, as a society in the US, have not embraced. The more we reside in the “fringe elements” of society, the more challenging this is. However, the rewards when successful are amazing. The cocktail of endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin a strong relationship generates accelerate us into a blissful flow and creativity. Make the time to seek and build strong relationships in your work. Be fully present in the moments throughout the day where you interact with others. Weave those threads of connection in your career into the tapestry of your life and create amazing things!
Hsieh, T. (2013). Delivering happiness: A path to profits, passion, and purpose. Business Plus.
LIM, J. E. N. N. (2022). Beyond happiness: How authentic leaders prioritize purpose and people for growth and impact. GRAND CENTRAL PUB.