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ATD Blog

Relationships at Work

By and

Wed Nov 06 2013

Relationships at Work

“Don’t play where you eat.” We’ve always heard that it’s important to keep our relationships at work separate from our personal lives. In response, we’ve cultivated a polite but detached demeanor that keeps co-workers at a safe distance. When others ask how we are, our typical response is “great!” We ask others, “How are you?” but don’t listen to the answer. We keep conversation light and impersonal. We don’t let anyone see us sweat, and we keep our fears and vulnerabilities to ourselves. No one can scratch the impermeable surface we present.

All around the world, most of us spend far more time with our colleagues at work than we do with our closest friends and family. That’s a lot of time to spend with people whom you don’t really know or care about.


Strong relationships are the number one predictor of well-being. And those include relationships at work. Your personal well-being, happiness, and health are closely tied to the meaningful connections that you establish with others. When the workload gets heavy, the company faces a merger, or your boss is being unfair, you need folks you can trust and rely on for support—people who “have your back.” Having great relationships at work gives you a reason for getting out of bed and helps you to look forward to being at your job every day.

Positive relationships between colleagues at work also drive productivity and engagement. People with friends at work are happier people. And happier people work harder. Happier people also are more engaged and committed to the organization. Some of the key drivers of engagement have to do with relationships, including having a best friend at work, having someone at work who cares about your success, and receiving regular feedback.

How do you begin to create more meaningful relationships at work? Here are a few techniques we recommend, based on the science of positive psychology.

  • Be fully present. When people actively pay attention to one another, they foster connection and mutual understanding. Put down the smartphone when co-workers are talking. Look up from your desk, and make eye contact. Pay attention during meetings and presentations—those endless PowerPoint presentations represent someone’s hard work. Ask questions about your co-workers’ lives outside of work, and really listen to the answers. Remember where they grew up, where they went on vacation, and their kids’ names.

  • Celebrate good news. When your colleague shares something positive that happened to her, encourage her to tell you more about it. Constructively listening to good news has been shown to be even more important to relationships than how one responds to bad news. When a co-worker talks about something positive, ask questions to encourage him to share more. For example: “That’s great! How did you make the decision to go back to school? Did you look at a few programs before choosing that one? How many classes will you take?” Resist the urge to point out the negatives: “You’re going to a new gym after work to get in shape? Won’t that take time away from the kids?”

  • Appreciate the good. If you look for what is wrong with your colleagues, you will find it. But the reverse also is true. Start looking for what is right about your teammates and you will find it. Let people know when you catch them doing good, and recognize their positive efforts in public. If John really bugs you, keep a “What I Like About John” list in your drawer, and update it every day. When you appreciate the good, the good appreciates.

  • Be trustworthy. Strong relationships are built on trust and reliability. The president of a Fortune 500 company once told me, “It’s lonely in this office. I spent the best years of my career surrounded by friends in sales and marketing. Now there’s no one I can trust." Honor the relationships you are building by keeping confidences. Never pass along something said to you in private or use something you learned in a personal conversation for your own gain.

Peel off your veneer. Dare to let people see the real you. Show people what you truly care about. Let your passions shine through. Talk about the people and priorities that matter to you. Be honest when you take time off for important family commitments.

Better relationships at work are made, not born. But the payoff is significant: a happier and more productive you, a reason to go to work every day,


people who have your back, and a more engaged and effective organization.

For more on the positive workplace, read the full blog series.

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