As human beings, we have a biological need for social connection. A lot of research would also suggest that our relationships are one of the most important, if not the most, contributing factors to our wellbeing.

Our relationships provide us with a sense of belonging and are a source of support during tough times. When we engage with others, our bodies release the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, which immediately reduces any stress or anxiousness that we may be feeling. We also tend to experience positive emotions when we’re with others, which has great benefits for both our mental and physical health.

Why do we want stronger relationships at work?

Given we spend most of our waking hours at work, it makes sense that we should want to have good relationships with our team members. And strong relationships are good for business too. Poor relationships on the hand, can be costly. We want to be able to have friends at work to celebrate successes and commiserate losses with. If we don’t, this can give rise to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

When we have good connections with those we work with, we are more creative and innovative, which can be what drives an organisation’s competitive edge. The relationships we hold with those at work enable us to be more motivated, productive, resilient, energised and more engaged (what we need more of right now). In fact, according to Gallup, if you have a best friend at work, you’re seven times more likely to be engaged than those who don’t. So our relationships at work drive our job satisfaction, and if this is high, it means we’re also less likely to leave the organisation.

How do quality relationships show up in the workplace?

One of the leading researchers on relationships at work, Professor Jane Dutton (2014), from the University of Michigan, has found that high quality connections in the workplace are marked by feelings of vitality and energy, a sense of positive regard for one another, and mutuality, in that both people are participating and engaged in that experience and are seen on the same level or page.

You can walk into a room and feel the energy that exists between colleagues both good and bad. And I can get a sense of the quality of relationships within teams even over a screen.

Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard and valued

Brené Brown

How do we strengthen our relationships at work?

Every relationship is built on a foundation of trust and respect, and this is no exception in the workplace.

According to Dutton (2014), the first aspect we need to focus on to strengthen our relationships is ensuring that we respectfully engage with others. This is where the small acts matter like putting down the phone and focusing on the person, being present, listening and communicating well.

Secondly, we need to built trust. Trust doesn’t come from doing hard work, it’s built by doing what you’re say you’re going to do. The quickest way to erode trust is to do the opposite, and this is what creates toxicity in workplacesTrust can be fostered by knowing more about another person including their strengths. Leaders can also demonstrate trust by having confidence in their team members to work well from home, which requires them to change the way they manage, by focusing on outcomes rather than hours at the desk.   

Relationships take time to develop but are built in the micro-moments that signify both trust and respect. These can be the brief interactions we have with others that leave us feeling energised. In the workplace, they’re often referred to as the ‘water-cooler’ chats. I’ve known leaders who frown at the laughing or talking taking place in the kitchen or in the chat box, or the shared meals. But rather than scowling, leaders should be joining in on the fun, given these brief interactions positively contribute to the productivity and innovation of organisations.

In every interaction that we have with someone, we should be trying to bring the best out and showing respect, promoting trust and positive regard. I liked what I heard the other day in an interview with Carol Kauffman, an assistant professor at Harvard University, and one of top leaders in the field of coaching, who mentioned that we needed to move beyond the ‘Golden Rule’ of treating others as we would like to be treated. Instead, we should be practising the ‘Platinum Rule’, when you treat people the way they prefer to be treated.

Even though it’s natural for us to connect with others and offer support in times of need, often we can get this wrong. Sometimes we fail to fully recognise what the other person needs in that moment. We might jump to finding solutions to that person’s problems, when in actual fact what they want is to be heard and listened to. This is where we need to demonstrate empathy and compassion for others by better understanding their needs and being more aware of their thoughts and feelings, which will improve our interactions immensely.

For some people, these will be new skills to build. Given these are the most important competencies for success going forward, it’s good news that they can be learned.

What can our workplaces do?

Many organisations are beginning to understand the link between strong connections at work and business outcomes. This doesn’t mean we want to see workplaces forcing people to be friends. But rather, it’s about creating the routines and practices, and environments that foster trusting and respectful relationships, learning and psychological safety.

Unfortunately, these elements don’t naturally occur in many organisations, they need to be cultivated through action. For most of us, we’re accustomed to workplaces where we can’t make mistakes, we hold back our opinions and stressors for fear of embarrassment or feelings of incompetence, and people don’t show struggle.

Psychological safety occurs when these fears are removed, we can take risks, make errors, ask for help and are safe to share our worries and ideas without feeling as though we will be punished in some way. This enables a feedback and learning culture within teams so peers can learn from one another, which is recognised as important to both innovation and growth (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). A study at Google also found that high levels of psychological safety were the biggest contributing factor to greater performance amongst their teams (Delizonna, 2017). Additionally, psychological safety can help organisations solve complex problems according to Amy Edmondson, a Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, which is paramount in ambiguous times like the present.

Leaders need to create the space that allows psychological safety to occur. And they also set the tone and need to model the behaviours the company wishes to see. For leaders in particular, exposing their vulnerabilities might involve stepping out of their comfort zones. What’s more, leaders need to ensure everyone has a voice and can contribute their ideas whether that’s ways to innovate or to strengthen connections in a hybrid environment.

Building strong connections takes time and effort from everyone. But the workplaces that are characterised by trusting and respectful relationships, and psychological safety will be the ones that thrive going forward.