Workplace Relationships – You Have to Care

“The question in an imperfect competitive reality is: how do we move forward together?             

Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi 

This post is written out of concern. I’m alarmed by the amount of people in the workplace who admit (some without a hint of regret) that they just “don’t care” about many of the people they work with. We meet these people in the course of our work and continue to be surprised at their bold (to us) assertion. Thankfully, these people are not the norm. But their numbers seem to be growing.

Without question, the endless pressures of today’s workplace, exacerbated  by technological and economic disruptions are taking their toll on workers. Many people are experiencing emotional fatigue, with few outlets for expression, especially in the workplace. Stress usually does not bring out the best in us; in fact, studies show that the greater the stressors distractions – the less empathic people tend to behave.  According to Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. The more attentive we are to others, the more keenly we will sense their inner state and pick up on subtle cues.”         

But there is more at work here than the burdens of an increasingly complex workplace coupled with ongoing economic insecurities (as if that wasn’t enough!). A triple whammy of factors plays an enormous role in the growing emotional distancing of workplace relationships:

  • The increase of physical and structural work arrangements that keep people separate  (virtual teams, multiple reporting lines, global travel, etc)
  • Technologies that shift focus from people to self and things
  • People’s natural self-absorption and lack of interpersonal skills

The Bottom Line is People Need People

This fact hasn’t changed. We may think it has changed, but people still need people – not just to get things done, but because we are human beings with needs.  A well-known Gallup study of workplace attitudes surveyed 8 million people asking them to respond to the following statement, “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as person.”  The results showed that people who agreed with that statement were:

  1. More likely to stay with an organization
  2. Have more engaged customers
  3. More productive

This isn’t rocket science – it is brain science.  Research shows we are hard-wired to cooperate.  Yes, we’re also wired for competition but the problem is that businesses and cultures, in general, seem to be exclusively focused on the competitive part of the human dynamic and not our pre-disposition to work with others as interdependent social beings!

Let’s take a look at some of the impediments to “Us” acting as “We.”

  • Objectification of Others – People are not things. They are not tasks or means to an end. Now if you believe this, you will have a much harder time in developing successful workplace relationships. Your beliefs translate into behaviors and since the majority of your communication is conveyed non-verbally, your thinking will come across in your body language –one way or another.
  • Results Only Thinking – This is akin to objectification and they are usually inseparable mindsets. We hear a lot of people proudly describe themselves this way today.  While it’s great to be focused on outcomes, they are often achieved at the expenses of relationships. Results-only language is also used as a euphemism for “I don’t care, anything goes to get things done, they’ll get over it, nothing gets in the way of my goals,” etc.
  • Judgment – Chronic judges have a difficult time engaging others successfully and building strong workplace relationships. When you are judging others, your judgment is all you generally can see of them.  Judging usually translates into a “you’re not doing it right” message.
  • Cynicism – There isn’t enough space here to list everything that we can be cynical about in terms of workplace relationships. Cynicism (which we believe is a form of self-protection) is ruinous to forming positive relationships. It keeps us away from others, prevents and erodes trust and skews our perceptions.
  • Low or No Trust – Another big topic to explore. Understanding your criterion for trusting and becoming more aware of the behaviors that may impact other’s perception of your trustworthiness is critical to good working relationships.
  • Beliefs – We’ve touched on beliefs early on in this list, but they deserve their own category. Beliefs run the show; they govern all of our behaviors. There are personal beliefs like – I don’t have time for workplace relationships – to outmoded collective beliefs still common in the workplace like – Friendships and work don’t mix – or some variant of that belief.  This belief stems from the old workplace axiom that work and personal life are separate. While we are not implying that successful workplace relationships must be based on friendship – we also don’t believe they can’t work to everyone’s benefits.

To be sure, cultivating effective workplace relationships takes skill and commitment. Relations at work can be  complex and challenging. To our disadvantage, what we hear about workplace relationships is often negative. We hear about bullying (it’s real), “difficult” people (they exist and sometimes we are one of them), bad bosses (plenty of them to go around) and gossip (nearly epidemic) in the workplace.  No question about it – the average workplace is a real emotional stew.

Organizational psychologists were on the money when they introduced the idea that workplace cultures often replicate family dynamics. That’s true because despite the erroneous belief that personal life and work life are separate, we never stop being the sibling, the only child, the Mom or the Dad.  Most of us need to be far more aware and skilled at introspection to notice when something or someone at work is triggering us beyond what is proportionally appropriate to our jobs.

Why Caring Matters

Relationships are the foundation of business. Business happens because people make it happen. This activity is totally dependent on relationships. That is not in question. The question is how they happen – and how do people feel and perform as a result of those interactions.

People generally act from what they feel – even when those feelings are outside of their conscious awareness.  Motivation is at the heart of how things get done at work. If you believe that people at work perform, just because it’s expected, or because they are intimidated, or compelled simply by information, you need to check out the latest thinking on motivation.  And even when people are compelled to act based on these reasons, the quality of their response or performance will often match how they feel.  The stories that we mostly don’t hear – the heart of the engine that makes most work happen is that people DO CARE. They care about their work and they care about their co-workers.  Actually, given the hardships that so many workers endure these days – it is amazing that people produce what they produce.  Imagine what productivity would look like if most workers trusted that their co-workers and organizations really cared about them.

To those who still say we don’t care, we say – we know you care about something that touches both you and your colleagues.  Let that be the bridge.  Find the common ground. Reach out.  You don’t have to love your co-worker to treat them with respect and kindness.  Treat them in the way you’d like to be treated when someone doesn’t care about you. But most important – remember – your lack of caring is not helping anyone – least of all you.

Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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