Developing professional relationships & workplace connections
The average Briton spends almost two thousand hours at work every year. With such a vast amount of time spent in the company of others, it’s no wonder that meaningful relationships with your colleagues can play a key part in professional success and stability. Effective relationships at work mean you’re all more likely to enjoy your work and outperform. Enjoying better professional relationships will also often feed through into your personal life, as they can help reduce feelings of loneliness, give a greater sense of wellbeing and boost your overall happiness.
So whether you’ve already got a “work spouse”, need new ways to foster a team culture or are looking to resolve a conflict with a challenging colleague, our tips can help you to build workplace relationships that value trust, open communication and gratitude.
Why your trust is the key to a healthy long-term relationship
Trust and respect are absolutely vital to any successful relationship - personal or professional.
Google spent two years studying 180 teams for insights on the science behind cohesive teamwork – and their conclusions underlined the roles trust and psychological safety have in making people feel empowered at work. Psychological safety creates ‘‘a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves’’ says Amy Edmondson, the leading psychologist whose research Google relied on in their own study.
Businesses that are built on trust – where team members feel able to take risks, voice opinions and ask questions without judgement – are more successful than those that are not.
Employees at companies which foster high levels of trust display double the energy, lower stress, greater engagement, fewer sick days and 50 per cent more productivity than at peer businesses where trust is low, research suggests.
So how can you build more trust among the people you work with?
- Try to practise sharing a confidence that makes you feel vulnerable. If you’re able to let your guard down in front of your team, for instance by sharing a personal story, you may be able to open up greater levels of trust, especially if you’re the manager. For some, you might share personal stories of grief or poor health and for others it might be an admission of imposter syndrome, for instance. If you’re an entrepreneur, this may seem a counterintuitive idea, but sharing your worries for the business with your team and partners can help inspire them to invest in your mission.
- With up to 93% of all communication as non-verbal, paying attention to your body language and non-verbal cues – and that of others - can be a massive help in building trust amongst those you work with. Don’t forget the basics – making eye contact, smiling and nodding, and mirroring your colleagues’ body language. Consider swapping finger pointing and fist thumping with open palms if you want to draw emphasis, the latter being a warmer, open gesture. Wherever possible, keep your phone out of sight and give your colleague your full attention.
No matter your work – construction, office supplies, law or finance, for example – trust is invaluable where clients or other external third-party partners are involved. How you build that trust with your clients can take on a different approach to the one you use within teams, however. Respecting your clients and their time, being reliable by consistently delivering quality work to deadline and on budget, and advocating for their interests will all help nurture a deeper bond with your clients.
- If you’re a manager, you’ll often find that many people will readily follow someone they trust and feel to be authentic - and respect is a key way to earn it. This can begin with the smallest of steps – you keep promises, you’re reliable and deliver on time. But it can grow quickly to the point where you happily delegate, afford your team freedom and flexibility to make their own decisions, and offer praise and just feedback where it’s due.
Adapt the way you communicate for different personalities
Open, honest and dynamic communication is critical to workplace success. But faced with individuals’ own preferences for different communication styles, how do you get everyone on board and create a trusted environment for all?
One of the most commonly discussed personality differences is the idea of an extraversion scale which suggests people are introverts or extroverts. Popularised by psychologists in the early 20th century, it’s used to describe from where people derive their energy.
As a rule of thumb, introverts tend to charge their emotional batteries by spending time alone - and lose energy if they’re around large groups for a long spell. Extroverts, on the other hand, draw their energy from being around others, and find long periods of time alone can be emotionally draining.
Most people don’t sit firmly in one camp or the other - rather they display introvert or extrovert tendencies that can influence their behaviour in the workplace.
So how can you build better relationships in diverse teams made up of both tendencies?
Introverts are often mistaken for being shy or nervous around other people. Instead, as renowned American author and introvert Jonathan Rauch writes: "to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating.”
- As such, introverts prefer to process information internally and may favour working alone. They're naturally good at active listening but are less likely to speak up in meetings.
- You can get the most out of your relationships with introverts, for example, by checking in with them and inviting them to speak if you think they have a relevant contribution they’re holding back.
- To more easily identify introverted tendencies, look for someone who thinks before they speak, recharges alone (e.g. happy to work by themselves) and is a good listener.
Extroverts, meanwhile, are perceived as outgoing and gregarious - sociable types at home in a crowd.
- In the workplace, they tend to be more outwardly motivated by rewards and recognition. They can often be skilled and confident communicators but have a tendency to dominate the conversation.
- To further your relationships with extroverts, seek them out for group work, presentation and public speaking or – for a networking event – they can be excellent buddies to help get the conversation flowing.
- To identify an extrovert in the workplace, look for someone who is confident and sociable when interacting with others, and quick to speak up in group settings.
Be open with challenging colleagues – and try to empathise…
Personality clashes in the workplace are common but dealing daily with a challenging colleague can be a fraught experience.
And left-unchecked, even a series of small tensions can boil over to create bigger problems further down the line.
Although workplace conflict can be difficult to resolve, a strong starting point is to try to treat everyone with respect and empathy, even if you find it a struggle to get on with them.
Treating everybody the same will help foster fruitful relationships and defuse tensions in many cases.
So how can you resolve issues with difficult colleagues?
- Try to start a dialogue, speaking one-on-one directly, to get to the bottom of what is causing the difficulties. Empathise – even if it’s hard – and let them speak first, genuinely listening to their concerns. Try to keep a level head and – if a neutral setting might help - consider having the conversation away from your workplace, in a coffee shop or nearby park. If it’s a question of personal animus, be open to accepting some responsibility for the situation and be quick to forgive. If you can agree to work together to understand and resolve the root of the problem, you’ll be making great strides early on.
- It may help to identify what kind of tricky colleague they might be; a procrastinator, selfish colleague or aggressive? It could help you to tailor your conversation accordingly. Another approach to identifying challenging colleagues focuses on why they behave the way they do, with specific tips for resentful or intimidating people, for instance. For example, an ‘envier’ may resent your success, feel insecure about their own role and be hard to talk to. In such instances, giving them a key project to run that you know they’d enjoy could work to your mutual benefit.
- If you continue to run into problems with this colleague, it might be time to ask for support from your line manager, HR or an external mediator. This should be considered a last resort for most issues. However, if you feel like you have experienced harassment or abuse at work then please tell someone as soon as possible.
Create a ‘positive’ culture to encourage all your colleagues
Is your glass half-full or half-empty? If you’re upbeat in outlook and manner – i.e. more likely to be an optimist than a pessimist – you’re more likely to start a business, receive a promotion, recover from surgery and disease, and even live longer than your pessimistic counterparts, studies show.
This positive approach can have a huge impact in the workplace too. It can contribute towards team culture and help to cement healthy relationships between different departments or sites.
Here are some ways you can spread positivity:
- Start by seeing what you could do to inject enthusiasm and energy into your work environment. You could do this by using buoyant language and taking time to think positive thoughts. Even small touches like smiling more can add up to make a big difference. In your interactions with colleagues, be sincere, transparent and do what you can to help others succeed, whether it’s to take on some of their work or offer to support them with a learning objective. This uplifting attitude towards colleagues can encourage others and help result in everyone being in a better mood at work. Many people function better when they’re around other relaxed and satisfied people, so try and embody those values when you’re at work.
- Never underestimate the power of verbal praise and encouragement. It’s easy to forget when you’re frantically busy or face a major deadline, but a simple “good job”, “thanks for staying late” or “I really appreciate your contribution to the team” can really make someone’s day. Recognising the effort that they’re putting in during a project will make team members feel seen and valued. Employees who feel appreciated can be up to 50% more productive, as well as having higher morale and job satisfaction. And, in turn, this can lead to higher staff retention rates.
- Celebrate your colleagues as much as you can. Make them feel valued when they achieve professional milestones like promotions, transfers or a return to work, but don’t forget personal celebrations, too. One CEO handwrites over 7,000 birthday cards every year and credits this as contributing to a “more compassionate, gracious workplace”.
Invest in your work friendships
Employees in the UK spend more time at work than they do asleep. But who exactly are you spending all this time with? Are your colleagues just acquaintances - people you get on with to get the job done - who you forget about once the workday is over? Or are they in fact also genuine friends with whom you’d happily spend time outside work?
If it’s the latter, you’re on to a good thing worth keeping. Research consistently links close workplace friendships with motivation – those with a best friend at work can be seven times more likely to be motivated and productive. There’s also evidence to suggest friendships make you all better at your job because of group commitment and co-operation. Any job can be more satisfying when we have the opportunity to make friends, and groups of friends can outperform groups of acquaintances in both decision-making and effort-based tasks.
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