Navigating Work Relationships
It’s been three and a half years since the pandemic threw everything sideways. The many and varied consequences of the shut downs, virtual work, and a disrupted workforce continue to be revealed. The communication and relationship skills we develop in our personal lives are at the heart of how we interact at work. When face-to-face interactions disappeared and the virtual world became the norm, young people in their high school and college years missed significant opportunities for incidental social learning. Our newest generation of workers didn’t get the typical experiences that teach us what it’s like to function in a community.
Regardless of age and previous experience, we all took a step backward in our social awareness during Covid. While the following guidelines may be instructive to newer workers, a refresher might help the seasoned as well—especially when returning to the office even on a part time basis.
Here’s what you can do to navigate some of the typical communication and relationship issues that occur at work.
Don’t gossip. As long as anyone is being gossiped about, no one is safe—and that includes you. While it’s tempting to talk about others because it feels like a bonding experience, it’s toxic to a work group. Don’t do it. And if you hear gossip, don’t pass it on.
Don’t pass along other people’s news unless you’ve received permission to do so. Even when it’s a positive story, it’s not yours to tell. Let that person have the joy of sharing their information with those they want in the know.
Cross-generational relationships offer a lot to appreciate so be friendly with everyone, not just age peers. For younger workers, older colleagues can offer perspective and knowledge. For older staff members, younger coworkers can offer current ideas and bring a refreshing energy and enthusiasm.
Be very careful about sharing workplace stories on social media. If I were queen of the internet, there would be no friending or following among coworkers (except for business sites such as LinkedIn). The amount of energy and angst spent on who did what or who was/wasn’t invited to something is not worth it. Posting negative comments about your boss or company can come back to haunt you. And a special message to managers, you must never post negative feelings about work or your employees.
Share the air in meetings. You may be eager to display your intelligence and ideas but please balance that with listening to others and asking good questions.
Try to work through conflicts on your own before asking the boss to intervene. Most managers would prefer that you attempt to deal with issues and come to them only if you have been unable to obtain resolution.
Be respectful if you have a disagreement with the boss. There are no perfect managers and there will be times you disagree. Go ahead and speak up but remember who has the authority for the final decision. Complaints to HR or your manager’s boss should be reserved for serious misbehavior (i.e., harassment, inequitable treatment, unethical practices) and not for disputes about assignments or shift hours.
Tune up your listening skills; they’ll help you throughout the balance of your career. A sure-fire miss is interrupting others. Look at the person, not your device, so you can gain information from body language. Pay attention to tone of voice as it can give you clues to the emotional meaning beyond the words. Ask questions to clarify anything you don’t understand. Assure you’ve understood the message by repeating back what you thought you heard using your own words.
Be gracious in how you ask for help. As a new employee, if you weren’t assigned a buddy be mindful of taking people away from their work to answer your questions. Find out if it’s a good time, and if not, when you might come back. Pay attention to what you’re told, take notes or know where to find backup documentation so you don’t repeat the same questions. And seasoned workers, don’t assume every young person is there to be your tech support on demand. Use the same guidelines if you are interrupting someone’s work.
Be gracious in how you refuse assistance. When you’re young and new to the job, colleagues make assumptions about ignorance. It takes a certain amount of graciousness when you’re offered help that you don’t need. Monitor your tone of voice so you don’t snap at the person. Say thank you, then add whatever is appropriate, i.e., “I just mastered this the other day and am feeling pretty confident,” or “It’s kind of you to offer but I think I’ve got this.” What you may find is that the person likes it done their way, not that you are actually doing it wrong. If the results are the same either way, you can always try saying something like, “I know we do this differently but we seem to get to the same point.”
There are always people conundrums at work, it’s part of what makes life interesting. If you find yourself at sea with other issues, like how to address the person who can’t stop talking, my book Work Jerks: How to Cope with Difficult Bosses and Colleagues may be exactly what you’re looking for. It’s available at all the usual places and in all formats.
Keep thriving at work!