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7 Meaningful Ways to Build the Best Possible Work Relationships

By September 29, 2023December 15th, 2023No Comments
How to Build Relationships at Work

Alright, let’s engage in a little thought experiment.

I want you to think back to a bad working relationship you had. Really put yourself there.  Remember what was said and what wasn’t, the misunderstanding, the mounting frustration.

Feel your jaw muscle tightening up. Your heart is beating a little faster… Perhaps tension in your shoulders.

Now, if memory can make you feel this way, it speaks volumes for how viscerally working relationships affect us in the moment.

Good working relationships are great – in fact, there’s nothing better – but bad working relationships can really take their toll.

We feel diminished. We lose our sense of confidence, our capacity to be bold, and our willingness to try new things. If the relationship is bad enough, we may even decide to leave, hoping that a new workplace will bring people who just get us and we get them.

This doesn’t just apply to coworkers either. We might lose partners, team members, or clients — brilliant collaborators who could have helped make a greater impact if only the relationship had not become intolerable.

The truth, reader, is that all relationships are going to be tried, tested, and sometimes broken.

Whether they’re poor from the start or suddenly go south, you have the power to make them better.  And if you have good relationships now, you can build them up to withstand the trials and tests they will inevitably face

Here’s how.

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The Importance of Cultivating Positive Working Relationships

Okay, so enough dwelling on bad working relationships.

Instead, I want you to think about one of your best workplace relationships.

It was magic, right?

You just clicked. You brought out the best in each other, you were more than the sum of your parts, you had great ideas, and you navigated the hard things with grace, elegance, and humor.

In a word, you felt expansive – you stretched your comfort zone, you took risks, you felt excited and alive and engaged.

And that’s just the thing, really. Your happiness and your success depend on the quality of your working relationships – be it the people you manage, your boss, your peers, or your clients.

If your relationships aren’t working, it doesn’t matter about the work, you’re going to feel like your soul’s sucked out of you. Luckily, it’s within your control to make your working relationships more positive. By committing to intentionally designing and managing the way you work with people, you’ll create happier, more successful, and more effective team dynamics.

What Makes a Best Possible Working Relationship?

Before we dive into how to architect your best possible workplace relationships, let’s first define exactly what “best possible” means.

I’m not talking about creating relationships that are all happy, clappy, warm, and fuzzy. Firstly, that’s just not realistic. Secondly, those kinds of relationships don’t challenge you or push you to grow.

Building the best possible relationship is about asking yourself – how can I make this relationship as good as it can be?

If it’s a six out of ten, how do you take it from mediocre to something a little more enlivening? If it’s a rare and brilliant relationship, how do you keep it as good as it is? And if it’s a difficult one, how do you make collaborating with that person more bearable and less miserable?

The context of your relationships is important. But what always remains the same is your underlying approach – a proactive commitment to looking after your relationships, instead of leaving them to chance.

Building the Best Possible Work Relationships: 7 Effective Methods

Alright, time for the good stuff.

Instead of saying “Hi,” exchanging pleasantries, and hoping for the best, take the responsibility to be the agent of change in the relationships that matter to you.

Here’s how:

1. Take Inspiration From Past Relationships

Before you start trying to improve your current relationships, analyze your past ones in a little more depth.

See, what’s happened in the past will likely repeat in the future.

Of course, your previous relationships all had their individual quirks and nuances, but even so, they provide really valuable data about patterns of success and failure.

To start with, think about a relationship that you found difficult. What was done and not done, and said and not said, that made being part of that relationship challenging?

Initially, I’ll bet your instinct is to blame the other party for the mess that was made. But doing so is a mistake.

Sure, the other person played their role. But you were part of the dynamic tool. Be honest with yourself and take accountability. Examine your behavior, their behavior, and the situation, and see what you can learn from those past difficult experiences.

After that, put the spotlight on one of your favorite past working relationships and ask the same questions. Don’t be overly modest here. Celebrate you and them. After all, the relationship was so good in part because of the way you showed up.

By drawing on lessons of the past, you’ll have greater self-awareness about what works for you and what doesn’t.  With these insights, you’ll be able to actively construct an environment where you’re most likely to flourish.

2. Talk About How to Work

It’s easy to jump into a project straight away without considering a really important aspect – how you plan on working together.

Considering that some teams end up spending years on the same project, I feel justified in saying that this is a really important step to take into consideration!

A good way to plan this is with what I call the Keystone Conversation – a concept I explore in great detail in my new book, How To Work With (Almost) Anyone.

The Keystone Conversation helps you build the infrastructure for the best possible relationship by establishing three things.

  1. It creates a shared responsibility between you and the other person for the health of the relationship.
  2. It gives you permission to continue to talk about the relationship in the good and the bad times ahead.
  3. It provides you with a deeper understanding of the person across the table from you, bringing you closer to the truth of their full humanity.

The Keystone Conversation has nothing to do with what you’re working on and everything to do with how you’re going to work together.

Questions I recommend asking include:

  • What’s your best?
  • What are your practices and preferences?
  • What have you learned from past relationships?
  • How will you fix it when things go wrong?

Importantly, these questions are for you too. So, before you dive in with one of your colleagues, spend some time thinking about your own answers. It will help you show up authentically and vulnerably. This, in turn, will make the other person more likely to do the same.

3. Embrace the Awkwardness

Make no mistake, your first few Keystone Conversations are going to feel awkward, unusual, and vulnerable.

This feeling is normal, not some failure of you or of them or of the process. You’re co-creating something important and rare. You’re figuring out a new way of working together and shaping a different future. It would be surprising if it weren’t a little complex and challenging.

Even though the initial Keystone Conversation might feel a little awkward, it’s not actually the answers you get in the moment that are most important, as helpful as those are. What’s most powerful is that the conversation gives you and the other person permission to revisit how your dynamic is playing out.

In essence, you’ve opened up the opportunity to fine-tune the way you work together over time, which reduces the likelihood of miscommunication and improves the chances for meaningful connection.

4. Finish Strong

Too many important conversations end with a whimper. Even if the energy has been great all the way through, ending the Keystone Conversation on a positive note will increase its impact dramatically.

To do this, set a precedent of making every conversation with you one of learning. At the end of the meeting, ask the other person: “What was most useful here for you?”

This is a great coaching skill and a really powerful tool because, firstly, it strengthens both of your memories of the conversation.

Secondly, you both get valuable feedback about what worked best, so you know what to do more of (and less of) in the next conversation. Finally, you affirm that this was, in fact, a useful conversation and that you’re looking forward to the next one.

As a final note, committing to the best possible relationship is an achievement in itself. It’s no small thing to do, so celebrate it as a success at work.

Small phrases like: “Thank you, that was really helpful. I’m excited for what’s ahead.”

Or, “That was really valuable for me.”

Both of these can do massive amounts of good!

5. Build on Safety, Vitality, and Repairability

The Keystone Conversation is the foundation of your best possible working relationship, but how do you maintain it? By cultivating relationships that are safe, vital, and repairable.

Safe refers to a concept that Amy Edmondson popularized, known as psychological safety.

When relationships feel safe, you and the other person feel more able to say stuff that might feel a bit risky. You’re both more likely to show up authentically, knowing that you can share your thoughts without fearing judgment.

Vital is a word that has two meanings – essential, and full of life and adventure. A vital relationship is one that pushes you, challenges you, and makes you step out to the edge of what you know, who you are, and what you can do.

Safe and vital need each other in equal measures. If a relationship is too safe, it can lose its spark, but if a relationship is too adventurous, it can feel brittle, dangerous, and unsafe.

The third attribute is repairability. As the famous relationship psychologist John Gottman once said, “Repair is key to relationship success.” The problem is that most of us aren’t very good at it.

Even though all relationships get dented and cracked at points, most of us have a tendency to be way too quick to throw in the towel. We throw up on our hands, play blame games, and distance ourselves from the other person. But that’s not good for you or for them.

Sure, relationships self-heal a little over time, but they won’t knit back together completely unless you put in the work.

With that in mind, repairability is about being brave enough to say – how do we bounce back from failure? How can we not only get back to where we were but learn from this and make our relationship stronger as a result?

6. Increase the TERA Quotient

Neuroscience shows us that, five times a second, our brains subconsciously ask one question – is it safe here or is it dangerous? Is there a risk of reward?

If the brain feels safe, the person you’re talking to stays in the prefrontal cortex – they’re engaged, smart, creative, and the best version of themselves.

If the brain feels in danger, the person moves into fight-or-flight mode, down in the amygdala. Here, they’re in self-protection mode. They’re on the defense and the world looks more black and white.

The more you can make how you engage with others feel safe, the better your working relationships will be.

To do this, I recommend leveraging the four drivers that decide engagement, known as the TERA quotient–something you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read The Coaching Habit.

  • T is for tribe – the brain is going, are you with me or against me?
  • E is for expectation – do I know what’s going to happen here?
  • R is for rank – are you more or less important than me?
  • A is for autonomy – are you making choices or do I get some say in this?

As you start to manage your relationships more proactively, try and lift the TERA quotient as much as you can to motivate others. Simple actions like asking questions, sharing your own experiences, and checking in with the other person all work wonders.

7. Be Open-Hearted

The TERA quotient impacts you just as much as it does other people. When we get stressed, we’re wired to shut down, keep it small, and stay safe. This inherently makes us look at the people around us through a lens of hostility.

When you feel yourself slipping into this mode of being, the trick is to stay curious, stay vulnerable, and stay kind.

Curiosity is crucial because whatever you think is going on, you’re probably at least partially wrong. Sure, you may know half of what’s going on, but you don’t have the full story by any means.

Curiosity dispels the fog of ambiguity and frustration, helping you understand the situation more deeply because it gets you out of your own head. It also helps you maintain connection by more accurately understanding what the other person is experiencing.

Then there’s vulnerability, which is all about being open-handed. The other person won’t know why you’re stressed unless you tell them. Share your data, feelings, and what you need. This is illuminating for both of you.

Lastly, always remember to stay kind. In the same way that you’re doing your best, they probably are too. So, assume positive intent. It will make your brain safer, so you can act at a more sophisticated level, and it will make theirs feel safe too, so you can tap into the power of collective wisdom.

Don’t Leave Your Working Relationships to Chance

If you’ve not started building the best possible relationships just yet, I challenge you to ask yourself why. After all, every working relationship could be better.

Be the person who reaches out and takes action, and watch as you and your relationships flourish. Need some guidance?

My new book is practical enough to change the way you work with people. It’s short enough to finish. And it’s funny enough to keep you entertained. Get your copy of How to Work With (Almost) Anyone today.

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.