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A definitive guide to fostering interpersonal relationships at work

a man and woman shows interpersonal relationships at work can build confidence

It can be tricky to navigate interpersonal relationships at work, without question -- just as it can be tricky to navigate any interpersonal relationship.

This article is not meant to be about romantic relationships or anything remotely similar to that -- most would probably argue you shouldn't pursue that type of relationship in the workplace anyway -- but rather, it's about developing interpersonal skills, interpersonal communication, social interaction at work, and the general development of interpersonal relations.

In other words: you spend a lot of time at work. You might as well have friends and those you can rely on there, right? But a workplace is insanely task-focused often, and there's so much to get done. How do you cultivate an interpersonal relationship in your workplace, then?

You need to start by realizing the importance of the friendship relationship at work. A statistic that might surprise you: If you have a friend whom you see on most days, the increase to your happiness is like earning $100,000 more each year. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie, it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.

There's also this on interpersonal relationship building:

"Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests organizations most successful at integrating new employees use a relational approach, helping new hires to rapidly establish social interaction with coworkers. The approach, while preferable, still relies on outdated best practice."

Interpersonal relationships in the workplace can be tricky. But ... there's a path here.

Building up the interpersonal relationship at work

Some employees -- especially those who manage others -- get skittish about being friends with coworkers, because they want to be able to retain that managerial edge aspect and discipline when needed. While that makes sense and comforts the human brain at some level, in reality an organization is a mix of people theoretically headed towards the same goal. There needs to be a strong quality of relationship there.

Think about what you expect from a friend outside of the workplace, or a spouse/significant other. Obviously there are major human behavior baselines, such as "trust." But beyond that, you want to make sure that an interpersonal relationship in the workplace is fostered by:

  • Don't treat the office as your home, i.e. don't leave a mess everywhere.
  • Don't spread baseless rumors.
  • Pass on the correct information.
  • Minimize gossip.
  • Respect the space and time of other employees.
  • Minimize workplace politics.
  • Aim to reduce your own ego as much as possible.
  • Keep any confrontations or discipline in private, not in front of the entire team.

These are the baselines of a successful interpersonal relationship. If you're not doing these things with coworkers, you can begin to build trust and rapport with each other. But if these baselines aren't being met, good luck with the development of anything remotely resembling a workplace friendship.

What other interpersonal skills does someone need at work?

In addition to the above baselines, some of the crucial interpersonal skills for the workplace include:

  • Self-awareness: Understand your blind spots and triggers, and manage each workplace relationship away from those.
  • Understand nonverbal communication: This means eye contact, facial expressions, body language, gestures, and physical contact including shaking hands, shoulder touches, etc.
  • Being respectful: This was mentioned briefly above in the context of being respectful of an employee's time and space, and it's one of the most important interpersonal skills out there. We tend to think of respect primarily as a managerial concept, but it's deeper and broader than that. Respect needs to occur at all levels of an organization, and across all different types of employee relationships. Respect is also deeply tied to dignity at work, which is crucial for the development of successful interpersonal communication as well.
  • Empathy: The jury is still out on whether fully-formed adults can develop empathy if they lack it, but we do know that empathy is among the most crucial interpersonal skills and greatly benefits many aspects of work and virtually every work relationship you can have. Show up for people and show that you care.
  • Be receptive to feedback: This can be very hard, and doesn't necessarily feel like one of the interpersonal skills, but it very much is one. There is a framework for giving and receiving feedback gracefully, and if you can't follow said framework, you run the risk of alienating coworkers and endangering many a workplace relationship. Feedback is also the backbone of successful interpersonal communication; no one is going to actively communicate with you at work if they feel you're not receptive to feedback. Eventually you'll come to feel alienated and distanced from the work, and your interpersonal relationship with both manager and colleagues may suffer.

A note on gratitude on work, as well

Work feels to many like it needs to be about hustle and grinding and winning and being seen as successful, so it can feel random to talk about "gratitude" in a work sense, but gratitude is very important to the development of each interpersonal relationship that makes up the ecosystem of the workplace.

Here we’ve got a study from the University of Kentucky about how gratitude reduces aggression. There’s also been 51 different studies showing that gratitude in a workplace can be a bigger, better motivator than compensation and bonuses. Much of this is cited in this article from Fast Company on the power of gratitude.

Bottom line: gratitude, another major facet of interpersonal skills, doesn't always feel like a "work concept," but it is. So walk over to a teammate, or message them on a platform, and say how grateful you are for something they recently did, or how they helped you with a project or a deadline. This is a great example of both an interpersonal communication skill and a positive interpersonal relationship being built, and the presence of both of those drive work forward better than most factors can.

A note on verbal communication at work in the name of strong interpersonal relationships

Consider this quote:

“The majority of what looks like an interpersonal conflict is actually communication breakdown. Communication, if not attended to with care, is as likely to fail as to succeed. And when it does, a listener’s incorrect inferences about a speaker’s intent often create interpersonal conflict.”

Indeed. Communication is often poor in organizations, but there are ways to fix it. One approach involves a three-question sequence:

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?

Here's how it looks in execution:

What: “You missed a deadline.”

So What: “This is going to make a few other people scramble for this meeting tomorrow.”

Now What: “I’d like you to help these people and also, in the future, attempt not to miss deadlines.”

That's a more effective approach to communication in the workplace.

There's another idea about workplace communication, put forward by Northwestern University, where you focus on six key concepts to get a point across and build interpersonal relations:

  • Data
  • Logic
  • Equations
  • Pictures
  • Stories
  • Participation

Makes sense -- we live in a very data-driven time, humans appreciate logic, equations help contextualize what we're communicating about, we're all visual creatures hence pictures, the brain loves stories hence that one, and participation helps build a culture.

If you can't communicate well at work, you won't be able to build interpersonal relationships at work. Hence, these concepts and ideas matter a good deal.

How does Fingerprint for Success help with building interpersonal relationships at work?

Four of our use cases resonate the most here:

  • Talent Development: Scalable personal coaching based on the unique motivations and goals of each team member.
  • Resolving Conflict: Data-backed cognitive and behavioral insights to help you achieve team harmony and create a healthy culture.
  • Team Development: Unleash your team's full power with a group-driven coaching program at-scale.
  • Communication: We measure each teammate’s preferred method and style of communication, including exact words that motivate and demotivate them.

We also have a wellbeing program, driven by our AI-powered Coach Marlee, that can help leaders and employees alike develop self-esteem and self-efficacy, both of which help in the development of work relationships, communication skills (confidence), generalized personal relationships, and more.

Perhaps above all, we have a program designed to increase EQ. It's two sessions per week, 5-15 minutes per session, and lasts eight total weeks on a flexible schedule. Ultimately it drives self-awareness and intentionality around EQ, which only benefits your communication skills and interpersonal relationships in the workplace.

Remember: work is a confusing place, and there can be politics and feuds and questions and confusion and unclear priorities, but if you root yourself in building strong interpersonal relationships, you will have a better experience there, feel more confident day-to-day, communicate better, and generally enjoy the experience of the workplace -- remote or in-person -- more. We all get by with a little help from our friends. Work is no different.

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