How to Have Great Relationships with Your Coworkers

Caroline Beaton

We all know that coworkers can make or break a job. Workers’ inability or unwillingness to be intimate with others—what some researchers call social pessimism—predicts poor wellbeing and worse productivity at work.

By contrast, research shows that workplace friendships increase individual innovation and enterprising behavior and diminish unhealthy perfectionism and burnout. One study found that teachers with higher perceived levels of coworker support reported less stress. Other studies suggest that perceived coworker support leads to a positive spiral of workplace support and resource sharing. These findings might be explained by what psychologist John Bowlby called “secure attachments.” Unsurprisingly, individuals with secure attachments have better work relationships and higher job satisfaction.

But how do you get great coworker relationships in the first place?

It’d be easy to command you to “open up” and “trust people more,” but this isn’t realistic. A critical component of trust is comfort and security, which can’t be manufactured or expedited. We all know those people who try to become BFFs too fast, and we don’t believe in those friendships. So don’t act like you trust someone if you don’t.
But you can still set your own example of what you want in a coworker. Don’t gossip, and don’t leave people hanging. Want trustworthy coworkers? Be trustworthy yourself. “You can’t trust a word that is said,” one reviewer said of the environment at Verizon. Start being the one person people can trust.  

Express gratitude for others’ effort. “Rarely is a THANK YOU heard,” one East Penn Manufacturing Company employee lamented. For another employee, at NHS Human Services, “lack of employee appreciation” and “lack of trust between employees” went hand-in-hand. Simple, repeated acts of appreciation can build trust and positivity.

And what shouldn’t you do?

By contrast, pointing your finger might win you points from your manager short-term, but long-term it will make you enemies. As one AccessOnTime employee explained, “The only time there is good communication is when [people] are trying to figure out who to throw under the bus.”

Unfortunately, blame is all too common in work cultures based on competition. Companies with limited resources particularly seem to breed competition and distrust. As one Dell employee wrote, “No job security, no trust.” Another explained, “People unfortunately don’t trust each other here, each protecting their own role … for fear of being cut. It’s sad.” Likewise, another anonymous worker wrote that in general employees work together “Whenever possible.” But when payroll is tight or there are layoffs, people stop having each other’s backs.

Indeed, quite to the contrary, several kununu reviews describe “a stab in your back environment,” as one Information Network Associates employee phrased it. Another at Payless ShoeSource in Topeka, KS summed, “You’re on your own … don’t trust anyone. They are all in it for themselves.”

Scarce resources and stiff competition don’t just ruin our relationships; they deplete our very humanness. One employee likened work-life at University Spine & Orthopedics to “swimming with sharks” or “playing in grass full of snakes”, while an employee at 3 Way Trucking said that competition throughout the company made people throw each other “to the wolves.”

A couple of things to starting doing more

Prioritize collaboration over competition by being the kind of coworker who makes others’ lives easier, not harder. In one idyllic review, an employee at Target described a culture where, “Everyone is pretty much on board with helping one another … [T]hey help each other so that their work friends don’t have a shi*** job. It’s kinda like mutually trying to make each other’s jobs easier.” 

Demand equal treatment for both yourself and your coworkers: Trust and friendship thrive in cultures of fairness. One study revealed that fair treatment of coworkers enhanced employees’ sense of justice and social wellbeing. Decades after kindergarten, it’s amazing how much fairness still matters.

 

Finally, a word of caution: once you begin to create coworker friendships, resist the temptation to form a clique, which ultimately undermines a positive, trusting work culture. “My manager was in a clique with another employee,” one Medic Management Group related. “They acted like high school kids, always running back and forth with each other, whispering and acting very unprofessional.” Another Dick’s Sporting Goods employee wrote, “Many of the employees are … gossipy and stick to their clique of work friends, so like many jobs it can feel a lot like being back in high school.”

In the age of “work wives,” it’s easy to become overly comfortable in one relationship or a small group at other people’s expense. In the end, cliques—even though they’re sometimes fun—breed resentment and distrust.

At the end of the day we all want coworkers who “feel like family,” as one The Unlaub Company Inc. employee put it. Prioritize these relationships and one day you might.

 

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Caroline Beaton (@cs_beaton) is kununu’s millennial career expert. She’s an award-winning writer and entrepreneur who helps ambitious millennials change their habits and behaviors to lead more fulfilling lives. Her writing has been has been featured in Forbes, Psychology Today, Business Insider and many others.