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How to Address Poor Work Relationships

Jamie Resker

Founder: Employee Performance Solutions

In the best sense, the quality of our work relationships is meant to contribute to an "all hands on deck" mentality where everyone focuses on achieving results. In the worst sense, poor quality work relationships divert attention from results and create unseen "waste."

When thinking about waste at work some familiar tools and methodologies come to mind: Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma. These and other methods are designed to eliminate waste, increase quality and remove low value processes. The goal is to increase efficiency and output which then leads to a competitive advantage.

Thinking of work "waste" generates images of excess scrap, a partially operating production line that leaves workers milling around, unnecessary steps in a process, excess inventory and more. While the waste that comes from poor work relationships is invisible, it's just as real as the examples cited above.

What Types of Behaviors Negatively Impact Work Relationships?

Too many to list! Much of what we observe is subtle in nature:

Withholding information someone else should have

Acting unapproachable/in a bad mood

Leaving out important details

Looking good by making others look bad

Refusing to work with someone

Hoarding work that should go to others.

Whether we are an observer or directly involved it's normal to react to disruptive or unhelpful co-workers - either through Inward Experience or Outward Response. And both responses lead to waste.

The Inward Experience Response

An example of this type of response is when someone makes a comment that causes me embarrassment. My face will turn red and I'll feel my body heating up seconds before I have processed the awkward moment. My brain does this for me automatically; it is a physiological response I cannot control.

In that moment and for a period of time after, I find myself ill-equipped to think clearly. Brain resources I need for analytical thinking, problem solving, creative ideas, weighing options and more are temporarily unavailable.

I can and will move on but I've just experienced a "power outage." I'm now distracted from the task at hand. I will ruminate over the interaction and think over what I could have done differently to avoid putting myself into the position in the first place.

The Outward Experience Response

The Outward Experience response ties back to the Inward Experience response. Here's an example how:

Bob has a reputation for being "smarter than anyone else in the room" and makes it his business to find as many opportunities as possible to interrupt and discredit others. George was in the middle of talking through an idea with the team when mid-way Bob went into his "self-proclaimed expert in everything" mode.

George gets caught up in his Inward Experience: his idea went unheard and he feels disrespected. He's angry, thinks Bob is a jerk, and is disappointed that he was unable to stand up to Bob during the meeting.

He replays the incident and conjures up scenarios of how he could have put Bob in his place. He begins thinking about what to do next. Here's where the Outward Response begins to reveal itself.

The Impact

When we feel slighted, jolted or disappointed we can choose to keep our feelings bottled up while we mull them over (Inward Experience) or let them go and move on (if you are the Dali Lama you should be all set).

Usually our Inward Experience moves to an Outward Response. We take action in some way or another. Look around and you will recognize noticeable signals of an Outward Response:

Complaining to others about the incident

Time spent by others consoling the target

Manager involvement

Calling in sick for a mental health day(s)

Decrease in energy

Looking for another job

Working around the "offender"

Time spent advising those involved

Reduced commitment.

Depending on the situation some of the above outcomes may be necessary, particularly if the behavior and situation is too toxic to address on your own, it goes against organizational policies and values, or is illegal.

But in some situations it is up to us as individuals to develop the emotional intelligence to address poor work relationships on our own.

Three Ways to Develop Positive Work Relationships

Reinforce positive behaviors and outcomes - Be proactive in letting your peers know when a successful collaboration resulted in a positive outcome (e.g. project deadline met, sales deal closed, etc.). This is much more effective than pointing out past failures and missteps.

Influence - Go out of your way to get to know your peers and build stronger working relationships with them. Be helpful. Ask about the projects they are working on, the pressures they are under. Going back to the Outward Response example above, it could be that Bob feels he has to be a know-it-all because he often gets asked to step in and "fix" projects that are delayed or not running smoothly. Step in and help where you can and that can influence future interactions.

Hunt for opportunities to communicate face-to-face - As much as possible, communicate with peers face-to-face be it a formal meeting invite, popping by their desks for a quick sync or going out for coffee. Not only is face-to-face the best form of communication, it also demonstrates to your peers that they are worthy of your time.

How managers can minimize work relationship waste
You can have a high-performing employee on your team but if this person's behavior and communication style erode collaboration and productivity, it's your responsibility to address it. Observe the working relationships of this individual with his or her peers then ask:

Does this individual's work style impede or speed progress?

Would I hire the person currently in this position today?

Is this individual aware of the negative impact his or her actions are having?

Then sit down with this individual to address the impact his or her negativity has on others. Yes, verbalizing feedback on these kinds of behaviors is difficult...but it's necessary.

Be proactive in addressing poor work relationships

Comparing work relationships to the same principles as Lean and Six Sigma can get us thinking differently about a problem that feels abstract and seems invisible. Poor work relationships and unhealthy dynamics result in waste just as poor manufacturing processes produce waste.

We can choose to view work relationship breakdowns as inevitable and impossible to correct or see the opening: imagining what could, should and can be. Tactfully addressing missed expectations and talking about expected behavior is an opportunity to create a work climate that frees people to focus on results.

Whether you are a leader or an employee, you can be sure that efforts to improve work relationships and interactions will be noticed and appreciated. Look beyond the viewpoint of, "I'd rather not have this discussion with this person" to the benefits even small improvements can make.

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