Why Your Work Relationships Matter (+How to Improve Them)

Most professionals intellectually understand the importance of building relationships at work. Leaders in the business world certainly do. Psychiatrist Srini Pillay, who studies the neuroscience of effective leadership, published an article which explained the importance of skillful communication for effective and inspiring leadership. On one hand, this reads as common sense; on another, it makes you realize how often leaders sacrifice relationship-building for other priorities at work.

At least that has been the case in my experience.

As someone who has coached hundreds of senior executives about management skills and beyond, I’ve found that too many regard relationship-building as fluff, a skill not necessarily related to measurable “success.”

Sure, most people understand the theoretical importance of nurturing professional relationships as they would friendships. But I’ve also seen a lot of professionals dismiss doing this as superfluous, luxurious—a time commitment that doesn’t lead to results. (Little do they possibly know, research has shown that there is an inextricable link between the quality and depth of one’s relationships with coworkers, and overall attitude toward one’s work.)  

Additionally, most folks understand the importance of networking as an interpersonal skill, and try to be friendly on the job. But true connection is something different—and its positive effects in the workplace have a correspondingly deep impact, just as they would anywhere else. So how do you know if the relationships you’re pursuing at work are “real”?

The first and most important step is checking in with your motivations, requires a “gut check” by asking some difficult questions.  

If you think you could benefit from improving your relationships at work, do your gut-check by considering these four questions.

1. How do I truly feel about my coworkers?

Do you view your coworkers as an annoyance? Does your monthly office happy hour feel like a social activity or a chore? Is getting lunch with colleagues a welcome break, or a distraction that gets in the way of the “real” work?

Different people feel differently about the value of building relationships with coworkers. While some people view it as an opportunity to broaden their network of friends, others see it as a wet blanket. Those in the latter camp may think work should be exclusively about getting stuff done, and that relationships should be reserved for personal time. If you find yourself resonating with this, you’ll need to shift your perspective in order to build the sorts of relationships that will enable you to inspire and engage others.

Remember: you are not working with robots. While we obviously can’t spend the whole day socializing, recognize that connections put us in a better mood, and better moods are linked to better work outcomes.

2. What are my expectations when interacting with others?

All of us have individual histories, and they impact the expectations we carry with us in all facets of life, including the ways we think about interpersonal connection.

How do you expect others to treat you? Do you see the world as a “dog eat dog” place, where you have to be guarded to get ahead? Do you tend to be wary of others? Or is your most frequent state of being open? Trusting? Curious?

If you are someone who expects poor treatment from others, you are likely going to have your defenses up as you navigate the world. This sense of distance can interfere with your ability to build connections, and will be palpable to others.

By opening yourself up to others, you’ll likely be rewarded with higher quality relationships. Plus, as Wharton professor Adam Grant’s research has shown (with a few caveats), generous individuals end up ahead in the business world.

3. Do I see others at work as objects?

For some, the answer to this question might be a bit disconcerting, but I encourage you to be as truthful as you can be, knowing that these questions are just for your growth.

So do you see coworkers as a means to an end? Hurdles to deal with as you go ahead on your own path? Or do you see them as a living, breathing human beings with hopes, challenges, and dreams? Are they equal to you, worthy of respect and consideration?

Note that you may not find yourself willing to admit you regard others as objects. But this attitude can be more subtle than it sounds. If you are treating those around you as a mere part of the background, they will pick up on this. In contrast, the simple act of recognizing your shared humanity with others can make you more compassionate and present, and will deepen the quality of your interactions.

4. What are my values about relationships? Am I embodying them at work?

When most people reflect on their deepest held valuesthey believe in the importance of kindness, treating others with respect, and contributing to their well-being. Consider your values about how you should treat others.

Then pay attention to see whether you are fully living up to these values. When you try to bulldoze through others so that you can get your way, are you treating them with respect? If you dismiss someone else’s concerns as silly, are you exhibiting empathy? Simply paying attention can give you the heightened awareness necessary to modify your behavior.

While reflecting on these questions might result in some hard truths about yourself that you would rather not face, the fact is, they can be very empowering. Armed with the knowledge about why you may be struggling to connect with those around you, you can make important changes that will deepen your relationships and support your professional success.

Your leadership style can also affect your relationships. Take my Leadership Style Quiz to find out how.

Patricia Thompson - Corporate Psychologist and Management Consultant | Silver Lining Psychology

About the Author

Dr. Patricia Thompson is a Corporate Psychologist and Management Consultant who is passionate about helping her clients flourish by making well-informed hiring decisions, cultivating talent, and developing a positive organizational culture. Read more...