Your guide to good work relationships

January 28, 2014

Stuck moment: Work would be great — except that you can’t seem to connect with coworkers. Which makes the day seem longer, projects slower, and moments of blah-ness or insecurity at the workplace a lot more common. It’s a bummer. And a little lonely.

The thing is, your work self is not just defined by the “skills” section on your resume. It’s also about how you interact with people. How you present yourself. How you manage conflict. What you give and what you take.

Strong bonds help us do our jobs better and improve our life as a whole. Simply said, we’re at our best when we feel safe, valued, and supported.  And the benefits are magnificent:

• Good relationships spark good energy; you’ll be in a better mood, feel more confident, and minimize your stress levels — which will help you work more productively.

• Trust between team members eases decision-making, freshens perspectives, and makes way for creative insight. You’ll work more efficiently as a team, and with less friction. And that produces better results.

• You’ll create genuine relationships with the people you work with, forming a support network to count on career-wise, present and future.

• You’ll grow.

It’s never too late, even if you feel backed into a corner or pigeon-holed as a loner. Start small, and start with what feels most comfortable. To come up with our list of 21 relationship tips — plus a handy printable tip sheet — we talked to a few folks who credit strong work relationships for helping them succeed. Their advice is awesome.

Give, give, give
Forging real connections is about giving more than you take. When you look for opportunities to help others out, you find them everywhere. You’ll discover that you have so much more to give than you might have thought.

“We all have our personal assets,” says Michael Simmons, an author and award-winning social entrepreneur who writes a Forbes column on relationship building. “Our expertise, knowledge, and reputation. We can use them to help each other. Giving our assets away actually strengthens relationships.”

Think about how it feels when someone shares something of value with you — whether it’s know-how, homemade treats, their word or reputation to vouch for you, or a friendly ear to listen. You get a feel-good buzz that brightens your day. And that buzz doubles back like a boomerang, forging a bond.

“It’s one of life’s greatest joys when you can do something for someone and see the impact,” Simmons says, speaking from first hand experience. He was on the receiving end of generosity as a young entrepreneur, and now he tries to do the same for others. “It’s really contagious and so easy. The right words at the right times can have a huge impact.”

Here’s a starter list of things we can give at the office, big and small:

• Extend your resources, like contacts, skills, an invitation to an event, a book, or a link to a useful article.

• Make a habit of making introductions between people you know.

• Offer recommendations for anything from a great movie to an upcoming workshop.

• Put in a good word on someone’s behalf.

• Be kind. Listen. Serve as someone’s sounding board.

• Take the time to help a colleague who may be struggling with something that comes easily to you.

• Bring in treats, smile, give compliments, offer a ride to work on a snowy day.

• Give people well-deserved shout-outs on networks like Linked In, Twitter, and Facebook.

• Try to anticipate needs before you’re asked.

Strike the right balance
As necessary as it is to give freely and willingly, it’s also important to avoid over-promising or saying yes to every request just to be liked.

“You have to establish your own voice,” says Sean Tao, global store designer at Club Monaco, who has navigated his way around strong points of view in his eight-year career in the New York design industry. “Any relationship is a give and take. You can’t only give. Otherwise, you’re just a subordinate.”

Yes, it’s okay to say no when it’s warranted. It actually can build respect when handled thoughtfully. “You never just say no,” Sean says. “You explain everything. The cost, the time, the effort. And you say, ‘I hope you understand.’” This establishes that you’re coming from an informed and confident place.

When it comes to disagreements, Sean’s rule of thumb is: “Choose your battles. Know when to back off and when to push. When it’s something that you truly believe in, really push. If you’re in a position of doubt, and either solution will work, give in.”

To establish your voice:

• Be genuine — to yourself and others. If you worry too much about how people judge you, it will hold you back.

• Be professional. Be prepared. Be accountable.

• Don’t take on more than you can chew to appear the hero. You’ll either lose your life or your credibility.

• Be fully present. There’s no better bonding experience than problem-solving with others.

• Give good reasons for your decisions and point of view.

• Office banter is fun, but don’t over-share.

• If you take work relationships online, only add those with whom you’re friends in real life.

In the heat of the moment
Then there’s the day-to-day interactions with our fellow humans of all different stripes and temperaments. This is where it helps to get a handle on people’s hot buttons to employ empathy and fresh perspective.

Shivani York is one who knows. Currently executive director, product development at The NPD Group, she has held cross-functional roles for most of her career, where she learned to be a master mediator.

Her main advice? “Fostering relationships takes time,” she says. “You have to make sure that first the trust is built, and you do that through example.” When she was head of product and strategy at, she straddled multiple departments and teams, working with as many as three or four teams at once. “We were working on a home page redesign, and there were editorial and business components to that. It took us awhile to get to a place where, if one party wasn’t there, they knew they were being voiced,” she says.

“When you get aggravated, it’s usually because you can’t express your own thoughts articulately, or you’re not giving the other person a chance to be heard,” she says. That’s when it helps to step back for a moment and reframe your thinking. She offers some great tips that can help ease potential friction:

• Regard work relationships as “longer-term partnerships versus short-term endeavors.” So pick your battles. “A short-term benefit isn’t worth long-term damage.”

• Think about the issue from the other person’s point of view. “Consider different outcomes, like maybe marketing has to be done differently and only a marketing person would know that.”

• Consider how different people might take certain news or opposing opinions, and try to be flexible. For example, “If the head of product management is an introvert, tell them in advance what you’re going to discuss in a meeting.”

• Use one-on-one meetings to get to the heart of a disagreement in a more private, personal way.

• Ask for feedback. And apply it. “It’s taught me a lot about things I needed to work on from other people’s perspectives.”

“I’ve learned from everyone I’ve come into contact with,” Shivani says. “And I hope that they’ve taken something away from me. If it helps you interact with the next person a little better, in a slightly modified way, or adds color to what you do — it’s a win-win situation.”

DOWNLOAD THIS: A printable and pin-able “Recipe for Making Relationships at Work”

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