Like most people who have been in the workforce for a number of years, I’ve worked with my share of incredible people. Leaders and managers who inspired me to do my best. Colleagues who were funny, easy going, and devoted to doing great work. Customers and clients who’ve made me feel like I was doing work that matters.
I’ve also seen my share of bad behavior — ego driven micro-management, managers who assumed that making staff cry during a shift was a mark of effectiveness, one “leader” who insisted that it was too difficult to learn to pronounce a co-workers name correctly, opting instead to call her “that girl who runs the reports.” I count myself as fortunate — the bulk of my experiences have been positive, and I’ve been able to navigate the negative (somewhat) gracefully.
Creating Harmonious Work Relationships
Over the years, I’ve consistently applied three principles to my working relationships: Be kind, pay attention, and ask for feedback. For the most part, these tactics will help to solidify an already positive relationship. I’ve also noticed that they can be a great defense when relationships begin to sour (or were leaving a bad taste from the start).
Beyond the basics—say please and thank you, give credit when credit is due, don’t feed the gossip machine, etc.—kindness can mean a lot of things. Are you being kind to yourself? If you haven’t had enough water, proper sleep, decent food, or a bit of exercise recently, it’s probably time to show yourself some love.
Kindness can also be related to empathy—are you able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? If you can, it’s more likely that you’ll attribute the kindest motivation to their behavior. When you assume the kindest possible interpretation, you learn to see the best in people, to acknowledge their humanity, and move forward without trying to dissect their tone or hunt for signs of passive aggressive behavior.
On the flip side, if you have a co-worker, manager, or regular client who is routinely rude, difficult, or openly hostile, there is great satisfaction in knowing that stood firmly on the higher ground, exhibiting kindness even if they didn’t deserve it. Even if you need to loudly and repeatedly assert to your friends that you were the victor in the situation later (over a glass of wine perhaps? You’ve earned it), you can sleep well knowing that you were the bigger person.
Much of my early employment was in the service industry, working in bars and restaurants. The ability to pay attention often made the difference between the great servers and those who struggled. Noticing an empty glass, a stack of dirty dishes, or a person desperately scanning the room trying to make eye contact with a server, could all make the difference between a bad tip and a great one.
Now that I have a “real job” (please note, working in service is a difficult job that requires a lot of skill—my use of this phrase is born from years of others asking when I was going to get a “real job”), the skill of paying attention serves me well. The culture of an organization is hard to define in value statements—but it is visible in every interaction you have with your colleagues. Paying attention to the subtle cues that you managers send about how they prefer to work, or what matters most to them, gives incredibly useful information to create a harmonious work environment.
In the case of difficult relationships, paying attention can give you crucial information about the person you’re dealing with. A micro-manager is often insecure about their own contributions to the team, a co-worker who is impossible first thing in the morning may be avoided until they’ve had their coffee, and that colleague who is resistant to a change initiative may feel that their position is being threatened. Bonus points if you can use that information to exhibit kindness.
Ask for Feedback
I get it; feedback can be tough to hear. However, actively soliciting feedback can take a whole lot of discomfort out of the process. It also signals to your colleagues that you care about them and their perspectives and that you want to be contributing at the highest level of your capabilities. When you’re feeling insecure about how you’re doing in a new role or new project, you might instinctively avoid seeking feedback. What if it’s negative? Well, it’s better to know early and correct early, before the things you’re doing become habits. And if you’re absolutely crushing it, but allowing your insecurities to get in the way, hearing about it firsthand will boost your confidence, and make you even more likely to keep doing great work.
If you’ve got a toxic colleague or manager who always seems to be picking at inconsequential things, actively seeking feedback from him/her can be disarming. It puts you in control of the interaction and makes them feel important and sought after. The varsity level of this move occurs if you can guide them into feeling like a mentor or trusted advisor, putting you both squarely on the same team, instead of them viewing the relationship as adversarial.
Consistently applying these three principles to my work (and other relationships as well) has fairly consistently resulted in harmonious and productive relationships. These three simple values have served me well, both at work and in life — and in the few instances when I experienced really toxic behavior (I’ll spare you the details, but you can read more about some of my most terrible managers here), sticking to my values has kept me sane in trying times, and allowed me to focus on what matters most.
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