When domestic couples are too busy to spend quality time together, it’s a recipe for discontent and perhaps divorce. Relationships at work are different in many ways, of course, but if interactions are overwhelmingly transactional, the same mechanisms of disconnection, misunderstanding of motives and disaffection can easily occur. We spend roughly the same amount of time every week with our work colleagues as with our families — and in many cases, more time. So, surely there is a case for spending some of that time in building relationships?
Twice a year team building days can help. But they can’t substitute for multiple, day by day reaffirmations of our shared humanity. There’s a big difference between being co-workers and being colleagues. Colleagues care about each other beyond the horizons of getting the work done. They have an appropriate interest in each other’s well-being and life outside work. They recognise when other team members are under stress, share in the joy of their achievements and feel sufficient psychological safety with them to offer help and honest feedback when needed. Above all, they can be authentic with each other
The conversations that build this quality of relationship do not happen in a full team context. They happen in twos or at most threes, where the complexities of group dynamics don’t apply anywhere near as strongly. Among characteristics of this kind of conversation are:
- There is usually no specific goal in mind — there is no pressure to come to any kind of conclusion or to stick to an agenda
- It’s unstructured — emotional responses direct the conversation towards thoughts, feelings and experiences people want to share
- People find multiple points of connection
- It’s much easier to be silent, allowing each other time and space to think
- It promotes both understanding of the colleague and their perspective — and self-understanding.
Snatched chats over coffee or lunch during the routine of daily busy-ness don’t cut it. We may be sitting over a coffee in the staff refectory, but our minds are still back at our desks and computers. Conversations that help us to really get to know someone else require an environment that allows us to step out of routine concerns. Among solutions people have found are:
- Going for a walk in the fresh air — being surrounded by nature helps us to connect with others at unconscious levels
- Meeting for a coffee outside of the office before work
- Playing a game of table tennis (or whatever) to help the mind shift to a non-work mode; then chatting in the cool down period
- Strolling together through an art gallery.
What these all have in common is that they allow us the gift of relaxed and undemanding time with another person. All that is expected of us is to be there, to listen and to talk.
It’s not that we are trying to become best buddies and intertwine our respective social lives. It’s about building a sufficient understanding of a colleague’s values, perspectives, circumstances and ways of thinking to enrich the quality of personal interactions at work.
For people working virtually, a simple routine that works is to schedule brief catch up meetings separately with colleagues every week or fortnight. There is less of an agenda, more of a tacit framework that has no boundaries between work and non-work. For example:
- What’s excited you / disappointed you this week?
- What are you looking forward to / dreading?
- What support would you like? Even if that is just being listened to!
When I ask people “What prevents you from having these routine collegial conversations?”, the first response is of course lack of time. Yet dig a little deeper and we find that it’s more a matter of not creating the habit. Most of us do physical maintenance tasks like having breakfast and brushing our teeth, because it is a deeply ingrained routine. An experiment becomes a routine, when we do it regularly. Today is a good time to start!
© David Clutterbuck 2023