Relationships at work

Relationships are not purely a transactional exchange of pleasantries or functional statements we use to get things done.  They carry the expression of our humanity.  They touch the core of us and let us know that we hear and we are heard, we see and we are seen, we value and we are valued.

At work, healthy and robust relationships are important not merely so that work is more joyful and satisfying, though that, in itself, is a major drawcard.  If we don’t have these healthy and robust relationships, we may miss out on opportunities for innovation, collaboration and learning.  How can we challenge each other’s thinking and have honest conversations unless we have a base of trust and caring for one another?  When I see a team that rows well together, I suspect that they also row well together.  (See what I did there with “row”?)

There is no “step 1, step 2, step 3” to good relationships

John Gottman is one of the most influential therapists of the 20th century.  In his work with couples, he devised Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  Some say that he is one of most influential therapists of the 20th century and I know from experience that these principles are powerful things.

One of the reasons I like principles is because they are not steps.  In the arena of human relationships, there is no such thing as a “step 1, step 2, step 3” approach; this is, of course, down to the complexity of us as humans and the greater complexity of humans relating to humans.   We can, however, have principles; they can act like a compass which helps to guide us to where we want to be.

I recently fished out Gottman’s Principles, adapted them and shared them with a team I have been working with.  Through the whole process, the state of their working relationships has underpinned every conversation that unfolded.  The things they were finding difficult within their team included decision-making, standards of work, communication and leadership conversations.  To do all these things better, they needed to have a solid base from which to operate: their relationships.  I likened the quality of their relationships to the health of the backbone upon which all the other stuff hung.  If we take care of our backbones, we have a sturdy, yet flexible central core which enables us to do most of the stuff we need to do in life.  Anyone who has ever put their back out will know what I’m talking about.

Seven Principles to help relationships flourish at work


photo taken in Shoreditch, London by John Wenger, 2016

Throughout the work with this team, I wove in moments where they could practice some of what is held within these seven principles.  I also invited them to reflect on the impact of doing this onto the quality of their conversations and the quality of what came out of the conversations.  This way, they could learn and integrate these principles into how they might go about their work henceforth.  These principles are:

Grow compassion:  When we know each other on a human level we enhance our ability to be comfortable with each other.  We can identify with others on a range of criteria.  We also come to know on a very profound level, that there is more that binds us than separates us.  This can include:

  • something about our personal and home lives
  • what we enjoy doing in our down time
  • what we aspire to
  • what values drive us to live our lives and do the work we do
  • even smaller things like what kind of foods we like, what sports teams we support and what TV shows or movies we watch

It’s not small talk; it’s more criteria on which to base connection and affinity.

Nurture fondness and admiration:  Recall past good co-working experiences together.  Express appreciation for one another’s characteristics, strengths and actions.  Show gratitude for help given, cups of tea made, birthdays acknowledged.  Solid relationships are characterised by people having an appreciation and positive view of one another.

Turn towards each other, not away from:  Being available to others builds an “emotional bank account” that helps when times get tougher.  Have stress-reducing conversations that act as a release valve, rather than letting things build up.  Be available to others for this.  This may include things at work or things outside of work.  Spotting someone who seems out-of-sorts and offering an opening gambit may help to cement the trust between you.  Small, helpful, day-to-day acts let others know you care; don’t play the “you go first” game.  Seeing opportunities to meet others’ needs goes a long way and we don’t need to wait till others do it for us first.

Let others influence you:  there is an exercise that actors use where one person lies on the floor, eyes closed, while four others pick up a limb each and move it about.  The purpose is to become more reflective on how willing they are to let others influence them.  We do not need to be in control of everything that goes on around us.  If we are to develop good and mutual relationships, we need to be open to what others bring.

Sometimes, yielding is the better option and one which generates a win-win.  Play the “yes game” with people.  This does mean we always acquiesce to others’ opinions and perspectives; only that we allow them to be active partners in conversation.  It is important that we entertain the notion that our way is not the only way.  Notice how often we find ourselves uttering the words, “No, I think we should…” without even kicking the other person’s idea around first.

Solve your solvable problems:  Gottman observed that amongst couples, about 70% of the things they argued about remained unsolved over long periods of time.  These were related to differences in values, beliefs or fundamentally different needs in life.  For these perpetual problems, establishing a trusting and caring dialogue and agreeing to disagree are useful approaches. For such problems, because the couples Gottman observed had a strong foundation of mutual care and admiration, they were able to see the differences as just differences.  They came to view these not as things to be changed or stamped out.

At work, this may mean we become mindful, over time, what the “non-negotiables” are.  This way, we don’t focus on them and create roadblocks, and we can get on working with those things that are actually solvable.

Overcome gridlock:  Some of our differences are solvable, some are perpetual and some descend into gridlock when there is little dialogue about them and they become hidden agendas.  As such issues become more ossified, they become barriers to good relationships.  It’s useful to do the courageous thing and bring these hidden things out into the light.  Discuss what the gridlock is.  Open a dialogue.  Agree to disagree.  Soothe one another and realise that it might be an ongoing issue.  Once acknowledged, keep it out in the open, rather than stash it away to ferment.

Gottman advised that in order to overcome relationship gridlock, to become aware of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness.  When faced with hidden agendas, we all invite one or more of the Four Horsemen in.  These only serve to maintain a state of opposition and do damage to a relationship.  A little self-awareness goes a long way and ….. what was that expression? ….”pride and grace ne’er dwelt in one place.”

Create shared meaning: In the realm of couple relationships, this refers to finding that deeper, perhaps spiritual meaning.  In the context of workplace relationships, this may also be the case, depending on the work that you all do together.  For example, there may be some higher purpose that binds you together if you are working in one of the “caring professions”.   I’ve always found it beneficial at times to open conversations such as, “Why are we all here together?”

Nowadays, more organisations are realising that focussing on some purpose above and beyond “increasing shareholder value” is essential for a business to be sustainable and successful.  Within teams, shared meaning can come about when there are rituals of togetherness.  This could be a regular shared lunch or out-of-work activity.  The team I referred to at the beginning of this post had a ritual of shared breakfasts, which gave them a stage on which to connect and prepare for the day, to share stories of good moments from the work and to enjoy just being together.  This was just one part of the rich culture they had created together and which served as the foundation upon which they do their very challenging work.

It’s about re-humanising workplaces

While there is much written about how modern workplaces need to devote more time, attention and energy to better co-working practices, HOW to do that is often glossed over or assumptions made that people will just do it.  However, we are in a realm that benefits from “feeder fields” such as counselling and therapy.  It is my belief that the move to humanise workplaces needs to access wisdom from other fields, and Gottman’s principles certainly fit.

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