When we think of interpersonal relationships, our first thoughts typically jump to friends and family. But with the average American worker spending more than 50 hours every week interacting with their colleagues on the job, workplace relationships are an important part of most people’s lives. The success, or lack thereof, of workplace relationships can have an immense impact on workplace performance and ultimately, the success of a career and one’s livelihood.

Any kind of relationship has its challenges. But workplace relationships can be particularly complex especially when the common worker-to-worker or boss-to-subordinate relationships is intermixed with other forms; friendships, romances and even family.  One key to navigating these complex relationships is to understand how and why they are different from the other relationships you have in your life.

Most people have essentially three sets of relationships in their lives: family, friends, and workplace relationships:

Family bonds, those we are born into or enter through marriage or other relationship, tend to be the strongest most people have, primarily because of affection, tradition, and longevity.  Still, as the old saying goes, “you can’t choose your relatives,” and it is often the case that we are related (by blood or marriage) to someone we find it difficult to be around.

That said, while arguments do occur, the strong bonds within families tend to work against outright ruptures, particularly since those ruptures are often the most damaging and emotionally costly and they can to ripple throughout the larger family and adversely impact other familial relationships.  Fortunately, it is usually possible within a Family context to largely avoid a person we find to be “difficult” without formally or officially breaking the relationship or triggering broader consequences;

Friends/Acquaintances are often the most rewarding and enjoyable relationships we have precisely because we do get to choose them. We generally like people with whom we have something in common, who share our values, whose personalities we find mesh well with our own, with whom we can relax and let down our guard, and (probably most importantly) who like us in return. These people may become close friends, or even “best” friends…or they may remain “acquaintances” with whom we have limited, but generally pleasurable, relationships.  Important friendships can often be closer than some family relationships, and can last a lifetime.

Work-related relationships are perhaps the most fragile of the three sets.  One reason is the purely accidental nature of the work environment: a disparate set of people thrown together at random and told to work together.  While workers may share some characteristics –like the profession itself- there’s a good chance that the profession may be the only trait in common. Background, culture, temperament and other important shared characteristics found in most personal and family relations may be entirely absence.

In the absence of those interpersonal qualities that make friendships and family ties so strong, close and repeated contact with so desperate a group can lead to real differences in communication, perception and ultimately, how well folks get along.

Another factor that makes workplace relationships often so difficult to manage is the fact that many of the relationships are not between equals. Even when there are considerable differences between two individuals, most friendships are characterized by shared values and perspectives, if not by common income, education, lifestyle, and experiences. But at work, rank and position are often inescapable facts of life; and this creates an imbalance that can make relationships difficult.

Generally, there are two types of work-based relationships

Relationships between or among co-workers:

True friendships can and do arise from work-place relationships all the time. But many worker-to-worker relationships can be friendly and productive and never become “personal.” As with all relationships, the quality of the relationship depends on the quality, style and dynamics of the communication between the two individuals. Experts agree that most workplace interpersonal conflicts arise mostly because of differences in communication styles, particularly where their jobs are interactive or interrelated – even interdependent.

Individuals with potentially competitive agendas, motives or interests, whether they’re personal or professional, run a high risk of developing relationship issues, especially when combined with other impacting factors such as differences in style, work-ethic, background, culture or just personal preference.

Managers can best address these difference by having clearly defines roles, responsibilities, benchmarks and expectations for all employees and of course, by keeping their own personal preferences out of the mix.

Relations between boss and subordinate 

Top-performing business managers generally agree that respect, cordiality, fairness, as well as being pleasant, friendly and fun, are all attributes of a good boss-to-subordinate relationship. But these characteristics can be problematic if they’re for the purpose of maintaining a relationship and not for the purpose of running a good business.  As Linda A. Hill, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School put it, “if you create relationships in which the primary goal is to sustain the relationship rather than do work, you will be creating a trap that sooner or later will snare you.”

As pointed out in the article “Be the Boss, Not a Friend,” consider the differences between being a boss and being a friend:

  • Friendship exists for itself. Friendship is not a means to some other end.
  • Friends are equals. Bosses and direct reports are not equals inside the organization.
  • Friends accept each other as they are. Friends don’t actively evaluate and try to change each other.
  • Friends don’t check up on each other all the time. Managers continually press their people to report on progress, evaluate themselves, and commit to future results
  • As a practical matter, you cannot be friends with all your people equally. If you choose to make friends of your people, human chemistry will come into play, and you’ll develop closer ties with some than others.

For these and other very practical reasons, while relations between boss and subordinate can and should be positive and productive, and while on occasion strong friendships have and do evolve, generally, clear lines should be drawn when considering a boss-to-worker relationship.

Aside from the obvious relationships that exist from worker to worker, or from boss to subordinate, workplace relationships can and do sometimes involve the blending of the other types of relationships such as family and romances. Each come with their own sets of considerations both for the individuals involved in the relationship, as well as the other employees in the organization. Many companies, recognizing the inherent complexities that come about in these situations, attempt to avoid the additional problems that this “layering” of relationships involve, by implementing polices against work-place romantic involvement, or hiring of family.  Still, the phrase “mom-and-pop” came from the married business owner, and those relationships sometimes happen no matter the consequences.

None of this is to say that you should not try to make friends at work.  Having people to socialize with, talk to, eat with, and perhaps even share certain recreation activities with outside of work is definitely a way to make any job more enjoyable.  Beyond this, networking and building a group of people who not only respect your work but like you as well can be important parts of furthering your career.

The best way to maintain positive workplace relationships is to keep in mind that the workplace is a unique environment and in that context, no matter what other kind of relationship that may develop, your role in the organization should be your first priority.

Advice for getting along well in a relationship:

Don’t take things personally

Detach yourself personally from the events and activities of the day. Don’t allowing yourself to get emotionally involved in your work or those you work with. Even if you don’t like someone personally, you may be able to find room to respect them for the work they do.

Respect Differences

People are different and there is typically no single right way. Learn to value the differences and opinions of others and find ways to use those differences to find creative solutions to problems, rather than allowing those differences to be perceived as a problem.

Talk it out

If you’re experiencing relationship issues, before complaining to the boss or talking behind their back to colleagues, though it may be tough, commit to talking things out openly, calmly and respectfully.

Keep emotion out of it

There is often a big difference between what people are trying to say and what we hear. Emotions and personal experiences, as well as tone and body language, can warp the intended meaning of what we say or hear people say. Try to listen and consider words and ideas thoroughly and dispassionately before forming your next thought

Remember why we’re in this relationship

At the end of the day, we’re all working toward a common goal. Even companies of only three or four employees need everyone to work together cooperatively to succeed. Looking for how we are alike and can work together, rather than looking for differences and personal preferences, can go a long way toward building stronger, more productive relationships at work.

If you are experiencing particular difficulty with someone at work, if the situation is impairing your ability to get your job done and is hurting your performance and you don’t know what to do about it, we urge you to contact Capital EAP and make an appointment to speak with one of our trained staff members.

Whether through personal counseling, a workplace intervention, or one of the many trainings we have available to help improve workplace communications, navigate co-worker relationships, or manage work groups, we can help.