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How To Improve A Challenging Work Relationship

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Relationships at work matter. Having friends on the job makes you happier, period. My first Big Law job (a grind) was made not just bearable, but actually fun by my two workplace pals, Dale and Tim. We supported each other and commiserated about our lot, but most of all we had fun—joking, sharing meals, and taking in late music shows together. Years later I still treasure those times (and we are still friends). In addition to the joys of friendship, the benefits of social connections at work include improved individual health and well-being and better collaboration. And as you and your coworkers benefit interpersonally from developing your relationships, the organization benefits as well. According to a 2022 McKinsey & Company report, “social capital – or the presence of networks, relationships, shared norms, and trust among individuals, teams, and business leaders—is the glue that holds organizations together.” Glue, indeed.

But the pandemic, work-from-home, and waves of resignations and lay-offs and transitions have created distance and strained the bonds in previously strong connections. In my coaching work, I hear from clients that formerly warm and collegial relationships have become more transactional, and that lack of trust and “weirdness” has crept into cross-functional partnerships. In some cases there is a tangible increase in friction and decrease in productivity, and in others there is a less concrete, but still important, loss of connection and personal satisfaction. Even treasured “work spouses” are struggling to maintain their relationships.

In a world where many of us are not going to the office, one crucial relationship building opportunity we are missing out on is what John Gottman, renowned marriage and family therapist and relationship guru, calls sliding door moments. These moments are incidental and seemingly unimportant interactions that help keep relationships going. A sliding door moment starts with a “bid”—a statement that invites a response or validation. It could be a complaint about a boss, an expression of care, or an observation. If a bid is picked up and acknowledged or validated, this is the equivalent of the listener turning toward the speaker, which increases trust and positivity; if a bid is dropped, at minimum it is a missed opportunity to build positivity, but it can also erode connection. And, between WiFi problems, participants being off-camera or muted, rampant multi-tasking and people talking over each other, more bids get dropped on videoconference than in person. I don’t actually have stats to back this up, but it must be true, right? The virtual world doesn’t lend itself to sliding door moments.

We need to take a page from the couple’s therapy playbook and start having “date nights” with our co-workers. Wait! Isn’t there some HR policy against that? To be clear, there should be nothing romantic, sexual, or harassing about it. But date night is not just for romantic partners; it’s for any relationship that needs a regular boost of positivity and connection. According to Brooklyn-based therapist Rebecca Sokoll, the purpose of date night—which doesn’t have to happen at night—is to “foster feelings of connection with an important person in your life.” Think of it as the relationship equivalent of a team-building offsite—a 1:1 aimed at deepening connection, having fun, and building positivity and resilience in a workplace relationship. Let’s call it a work date night.

Here are the keys to having an awesome work date night that builds positivity and trust with a coworker:

  1. Be intentional. Identify key relationships with coworkers, cross-functional stakeholders, even bosses, and commit to investing time building these important personal connections. Let them know your intent: “Sanjay, since we’ve both been working from home, I’ve missed our chance to connect personally. Let’s plan to both come in on the same day and grab a meal or a walk.” It is also important to make clear that your intent is to build a stronger working relationship (not a romantic or sexual one).
  2. Keep it positive. Don’t try to solve problems or have tough conversations. Couples therapists usually tell their clients not to tackle the difficult topics on a date night; instead they urge couples to have fun together. The same goes for workplace relationships: the goal for a coworker date night is to have fun, build connection and add to the shared emotional “bank account.” But, unlike a couple’s date night, nothing elaborate—no roses or candlelight! Have a meal, coffee or drink, or go for a walk. If you can’t meet in person, make it virtual. Zoom coffee or lunch is an option, or you can connect via phone and have a walk-and-talk.
  3. Avoid shop talk and gossip. Until you form a more personal connection, it’s easy to default to talking about work or falling into gossip or complaint mode. (This is the equivalent of spouses talking about their kids over dinner.) If you notice this happening, refocus on building connection. Come prepared with a few good open-ended questions, like, “What was your early career path like?” or “What’s your dream vacation?” and be prepared to listen actively and ask follow-up questions and/or share your own story.
  4. Listen for bids, and respond. Engage in active, empathetic listening and look for opportunities to connect to, acknowledge, and validate what you hear. Be encouraging and curious. “It sounds like you love traveling. Me too. I love adventure. Where do you want to go next?” Even if you feel no connection to the content, you can still show care and curiosity, “Edgar, what got you interested in stamp-collecting? Whats’s the story behind your favorite stamp?”
  5. Be vulnerable. Related to listening is sharing. Trusting connections are built when there is a “vulnerability loop” in which one person shares a vulnerability or weakness and the other person picks up on it and also shares a vulnerability. This mutuality creates a norm that it is safe to share weakness, which in turn promotes trust. Be sure to balance making personal disclosures with keeping the focus on the other person. For example, “Shari, I’m so sorry your mother has been ill. I had the experience of caring for my elderly aunt, so I can empathize with how difficult it can be. What support have you been getting from other family members?”
  6. Minimize distractionsThis should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. Your attention should be on the other person, so put your phone away and focus on being present with them.

I suggest you start with someone low stakes and easy, about whom you have at least mildly positive feelings to get yourself warmed up. Then invite a more difficult colleague and see what happens. Commit to having one work date a week. Even if you don’t become besties, it is likely that getting to know more about each other as humans will improve your ability to work together. That’s how social capital is built. Have fun being the glue!