Connect & conquer: how to strengthen relationships at work


8 min read

Author: Anna Glynn

Human beings have a biological need for belonging and connection. And this makes sense because as a species, we can’t survive on our own.

Much research would also suggest that the most important factor to our wellbeing is our relationships. So when we were/are asked to physically distance ourselves from one another, there’s no surprise that this has/had a negative impact on the way we feel and function. During tough times in particular, the relationships we have are a good source of support as we like to work through challenges with others.

At a physical level, when we are with our families, friends or colleagues, our bodies release oxytocin, which is the feel-good hormone that immediately reduces any stress or anxiousness that we may be feeling and improves our concentration and focus. We also tend to experience positive emotions like joy and love, which are vital ingredients for our health.

Overall, the quality of our relationships has a big impact on the quality of our lives.


Why are relationships important at work?

Given adults spend most of their waking hours working, it makes sense that we should want to have good relationships with our colleagues. Particularly if they generate all these great outcomes.

Yet there are benefits for businesses too. When we have strong connections with those we work with, we are more creative and innovative, which can often be the one thing that drives an organisation’s competitive edge.

The relationships we hold with those at work enable us to be more motivated, productive, resilient, energised and more engaged (what we need more of right now). In fact, you’re seven times more likely to be engaged if you have a best friend at work than those who don’t. Our relationships at work drive our job satisfaction, and if this is high, it means we’re also less likely to leave our organisation. This is why it’s a smart business strategy for organisations to be focused on improving the connection between team members.


How do we strengthen our relationships at work?

According to one of the leading researchers in this space, Professor Jane Dutton from the University of Michigan, to build connections in the workplace we need to respectfully engage with one another. This is where the small acts matter like putting down the phone and focusing on the person, being present, listening and communicating well.

In addition to respect, trust is vital for strong relationships. Trust is fostered by doing what you say you’re going to do, and the quickest way to erode trust is to do the opposite. Trust can also be built by knowing more about another person including their strengths. In particular, leaders can demonstrate trust by having confidence in their team members to work well from home. This may require them to change the way they manage, by focusing on outcomes rather than hours at the desk yet is a prerequisite for this ever-changing world we find ourselves in.

Although relationships take time to develop, they’re built in the micro-moments we have with others that often leave us feeling energised. In the workplace, these interactions are typically referred to as the ‘water-cooler’ chats. Despite their importance, there are leaders who frown at the laughing or talking taking place in the kitchen or in the chat box, or the shared meals. But rather than scowling, leaders should be joining in on the fun, given these brief moments are what positively contribute to business productivity and innovation.

Even though it’s natural for us to connect with others and offer support in times of need, often we can get this wrong. Sometimes we fail to fully recognise what the other person wants in that moment. We might jump to finding solutions to that person’s problems, when in fact what they need is to be heard and listened to. This is where we need to demonstrate empathy and compassion for others by being more aware of their thoughts and feelings, which will improve our interactions immensely. We have long known that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. Yet it has recently been suggested by Carol Kauffman, an assistant professor at Harvard University and one of top leaders in the field of coaching, that we should be going one step further and treat people the way they prefer to be treated.

For some people, these skills will need to be built. But given they’re some of the most important competencies for success going forward, the good news is that they can be learned.


What can our workplaces do?

Many businesses are starting to understand the link between strong connections at work and their bottom-line. Although we don’t want our workplaces forcing us to be friends with our colleagues, they need to create the environment that fosters trusting and respectful relationships, learning and psychological safety.

For most of us, we’re accustomed to workplaces where we can’t make mistakes, we hold back our opinions and stressors for fear of embarrassment or feelings of incompetence, and we can’t show struggle.
Yet when these fears are removed, psychological safety occurs, which means we can take risks, make errors, ask for help and share our worries and ideas without feeling as though we will be punished in some way. This enables colleagues to learn from one another and fosters a learning culture, which is recognised as important to both innovation and growth (Edmondson & Lei, 2014). Additionally, high levels of psychological safety were also the biggest contributing factor to greater performance amongst teams at Google in a previous study (Delizonna, 2017). According to Amy Edmondson, a Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, psychological safety can also help organisations solve complex problems, which is paramount in ambiguous times like the present.

Given these elements don’t naturally occur in many organisations, they need to be cultivated through action. And it’s often up to leaders to create the space that allows psychological safety to occur. They also set the tone and need to model the behaviours their company wishes to see. For leaders, exposing their vulnerabilities might involve stepping out of their comfort zones but this will enable others to do the same. What’s more, leaders need to ensure that everyone has a voice and can contribute their ideas whether that’s ways to innovate or to strengthen connections in a hybrid environment.

Building strong connections takes time and effort from everyone. But the workplaces that are characterised by trusting and respectful relationships, and psychological safety will be the ones that thrive going forward.


By Positive Psychology & Workplace Wellbeing expert Anna Glynn.
Anna is also a member of the Maxme Advisory.