Building Better Workplace Relationships

“How can I get my people to play together nicely?” A question I get a lot and its very wording reflects part of the problem; these aren’t children at play but adults we need to respect and have high expectations of. The team relationships we create, and upon which we depend for success, need to be deliberately constructed.

The groups of people we work with can be a slightly strange assortment of personalities, beliefs and quirks. We end up working closely on challenging projects with these people and spending lots of time together, creating the impression we’re close friends, but given a choice or another context, we wouldn’t necessarily spend time together; we may not even share fundamental attitudes about lifestyle, politics or level of emotional transparency.

Because these forced relationships are located in the crucible of workplace politics, high demands and deadlines, it’s not uncommon to end up with interpersonal conflicts and irritants within the team that threaten the quality of services and projects.

As leaders, we ask our employees to work in creative and productive harmony and then hope that some “common sense” will prevail to both smooth out the inevitable difficulties and encourage focus on crucial tasks. These expectations are sometimes based on little else but our unsupported optimism. Our business culture does not advocate cooperative etiquette and manners with the same passion as it promotes and rewards individual competition and accomplishments.

What can a leader to do to foster more agreeable and effective attitudes or behaviors and head off the predictable tangles?

Primarily, we need to model the behaviors we want. Don’t assume that you can “wing it” in your own relationships with co-workers and employees. As a leader or manager, you need to be deliberate, thinking tactically about what outcomes you want from your exchanges with team members and planning how your style and interactions can create the potential to realize those outcomes. As your work relationships come to more closely reflect your professional goals, other team members are likely to begin to emulate your behavior.

Try starting here:

  • Always talk about mistakes or failures without heat, blame or disrespect
  • Always address your concerns and frustrations to the individual – never behind their back
  • Never expect your employees or colleagues to tolerate your irritability. Failures require effective changes to be developed and implemented, not frustration to be absorbed.
  • Always consider whether you’ve made the environment safe enough feeling so that mistakes can be more easily owned instead of defended.
  • Do not passively or overtly accept disrespectful or petty talk about team members by either cliques or individuals. Concerns need to be addressed with respect and an eye toward solutions.

Starting these actions in your relations with others will model what you want and expect. Employees are more likely to follow your actions than vague mission statements or messages that differ from your actions.

Building a safe, productive organizational culture takes consistent modeling, team training and specific suggestions for behaviors in difficult situations. Carefully planned and implemented, all this up-front work eliminates the need for most crisis interventions later.

If you see the need for training or remedial focus on your team’s work relationships, a number of training and coaching approaches have been shown to be effective, everything from individual coaching for managers to regularly facilitated team trainings.