Cultivating Healthy Relationships at Work

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Budd Group
I recently had the awesome opportunity to speak to a group of college students and alumni at The Study Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. I talked about relationships at work, and the intersection of faith and work and how that is expressed in relationships we build through our personal lives and our work. College is often all about finding and working on relationships. Young people are making friendships that will last a lifetime, learning to build mentorship relationships with professors and advisors, reflecting on the relationships they have with family and friends from before college, and learning a lot about themselves in the process.  I loved my college years, probably too much. If you’re a relational person, college is the ultimate high, with all of its ups and downs. In that spirit, college is an important time to define healthy relationships both personally and professionally as you look to life ahead. It took me years to figure out how to embrace my relational nature at work in a healthy, productive way that built my teams up. So this is a topic I know has real value for all of us, especially young people just starting out in the workplace. But before we talk about understanding healthy relationships, let’s first travel back in time …

The Illusion of Perfection

Let’s go back to the time before we were born, when we were perfectly content in relation to the world. Let’s go back to what it must have been like inside our mothers’ wombs. It was the perfect temperature, we were nourished, and we had nothing to do for nine months. Then we were born, and BOOM! It was cold, there were bright lights and loud noises, and we had to cry to get what we needed. Our adjustment to life starts at the moment of birth. From that point on, we are in a constant state of learning how we relate to people and how they relate to us in relationships. Whether we intend to or not, we show up relationally in life and at work (even when we don’t want to admit it).  The real question then becomes, how do we show up, and how do we engage relationships in light of who we are? (And how do things such as our faith, our heritage or other things that we may find true or valuable to us influence our relationships?) We’re on a journey of reclaiming that womb-like experience of the perfect environment of love, care and nurturing.  Reclaiming that experience is impossible and has been from our birthdays, but still we seek it. In many ways, that sets us on the wrong trajectory, because it’s fundamentally about us taking and not giving. Regardless of how old you are, and what part of this journey you are on, healthy relationships will always require effort, self-awareness, intentionality, mindfulness and purpose. Building healthy relationships is no easy task, and yet it is the most meaningful work we will ever do, because we are built and wired for relationships!

The Components of a Healthy Workplace Relationship

Once we join the workforce, we show up and it’s not that different. When college graduates first enter the workplace, they’re eager to work hard, show they can handle a challenge and learn the customs of the office. But, they also need to be intentional about building healthy relationships at work. These relationships may just be what carries them through to the end of their careers, even more than their personal accomplishments. The way we work through relationships at work, whether with our teammates, subordinates or managers, is just a function of how we engage relationships in our own lives. It’s merely another facet of how we show up.  How can that look then in an office or a  business environment in a way that can bring about meaning for us and our team mates? Much like your personal relationships, your professional workplace relationships should always include: Trust Respect Being mindful and understanding Open, honest and transparent communication Is that surprising?  Probably not. However, at work the stakes are often higher and therefore, engaging elements of healthy relationships can be more challenging.

Self Awareness Is Key to Relationship Building

The truth is that some of us have better people skills than others, don’t you agree?  So, to help us build those healthy workplace relationships we’ll need to have a better and more realistic understanding of ourselves. If a young worker can understand who he or she is and seek resources around how to develop relationships, then they get a headstart. Work with what you have—don’t work out of a different skin. I have a friend who’s a real introvert and he works in a hyper social place. He loves what he does, but he started hating going to work. It turns out he was signing up for plenty of social events because he thought he had to—and he was hating it. I asked him what he thought he needed to be happier at work. He narrowed it down to one social event per month, and working on the close relationships he had with his peers through collaboration instead. He was very intentional about limiting his attendance at the extra social events, and that has helped him to play to his strengths and focus on building relationships the way that works best for him. A key takeaway will always be to connect with people based on who you are. Start with clarity about your own relational needs in the workplace. One person may want to have lunch with someone once a week to feel connected. Another person may enjoy having conversations at the water cooler every day to connect. Someone else may avoid the water cooler like the plague. And yet another person may want to start a social committee and plan all the parties! Regardless of how easily relationships come to you, or how comfortable you are in a social situation, your awareness of YOU is instrumental is taking the small steps you need to build healthy relationships at the office. Here are some small steps to consider in building healthy relationships at work:
  • Make it a point to appreciate other people around you and express that
  • Make it a point to be an engaged listener when someone calls on you and listen intentionally, not superficially
  • Avoid small chatter that is not building up your team or other people.
  • Create boundaries and be intentional about them

My take away from my time with the college students …

Have you ever noticed that we tend to repeat the same questions with younger people? So, when we know a student who is getting ready to graduate from high school or college, we ask him or her, “Where do you want to go to  ….?” or, “What is your major?” At the end of my talk, I asked my young audience, “What do you wish people would ask you that they never do?” I found their answers really helpful. I plan to use these the next time I am talking to a college student, and encourage you to do the same! Here are some of their answers…
  • What are you afraid of?
  • Who has had the greatest impact on you?
  • Tell me about your friendships and the people you are connecting with.
  • What are the things you love to do the most with your time?
  • What are your thoughts about your generation?
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