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Are your work relationships working for you?

Forming personal workplace relationships is a familiar feature of work-life. Contemporary management and leadership philosophies actually encourage employee camaraderie, emotional connection, and teamwork. Today we explore more on how to make your work relationships work.

7 minute read

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I still remember the first day at my first job. I was 20, I completed my Bachelors in Business Management and I was so excited to land my first job with a tech company, Oracle. I walked through the doors of this mammoth company with starry eyes. I always had (and still) have this fire in the belly towards the work I do and the relationships I make.

Here I was, naively enthusiastic and ready to implement all my learnings, share ideas, make new friends at work and deliver results that would enable me to grow within the company. Instead, I was introduced to the concept of HIPPO, office politics, and hierarchy. Welcome to corporate America Tania!

I’ve come a long way since. Lived in 6 countries and worked in retail real-estate, events, tech startups and luxury fashion. This means I was lucky to meet, interact and work with diverse people. There’s a pattern I observed across the different organisations, industries and people I’ve worked with. The quality of work relationships I formed depended on how well my colleagues/boss/client and I were able to regulate our emotions in the ‘storming stage’ of project/team development.

The storming stage is a part of the psychological development (forming, storming, norming, performing) a team goes through as they work on a project. This framework was developed by American psychologist Bruce W. Tuckman in the mid-1960s.

I consider the ‘storming stage’ the tricky phase. Tricky because it’s most often the deciding phase in terms of forming future personal work relationships. How we interact, communicate and respond at this stage forms the footing to people we would want to be included in our personal work-relationship circle.

Of course, if you are in a larger organisation you have opportunities like the water cooler, events and breakout areas where you can develop work relationships with people who are not part of your team/project.

On work relationships.

Forming personal workplace relationships is a familiar feature of work-life. Contemporary management and leadership philosophies actually encourage employee camaraderie, emotional connection, and teamwork. There are a plethora of tech products developed specifically to enable water-cooler chats.

These relationships are informal, voluntary, mutual, and consensual in nature. In our work relationships, we grow to know and interact with each other as individuals with unique experiences, personalities, and opinions. With time they can develop into relatively strong emotional connections.

Types of work relationships 

I’ve experienced so many different kinds of work relationships. I am sure you have to. While some have lost lustre, others have stood the test of time.

Some personal work relationships are hierarchical in nature.

I formed a really strong camaraderie with my manager when I worked in retail real-estate. As per Katerina’s friendship categories, he would fall under my top 15 friends.

Some are more lateral i.e. involving peers of the same status.

Building Arran Frances with my ex-business partner, Arran, was an incredible experience. But there came a point in the business where we weren’t aligned in terms of what we wanted for the brand. I decided I needed to exit the business as a partner but continued to support Arran to realise her vision. Splitting with a business partner can get very messy. It’s hard to walk away when so much has been invested into both the business and the working relationship. But we put our emotions aside and are still on each others Christmas card list. Arran would be part of my top 50 friends.

Some become workplace romances.

This could be same-sex or opposite-sex employee couples who are dating, married, engaged, cohabitating, and/or involved in extramarital affairs, hookups, flings, and/or friends with benefits liaisons.

I met my husband at work. We didn’t work in the same team but we did interact with each other from time to time at a professional level. Research shows that 40 percent of office romances became serious, long-term relationships or end up in marriage. Workplace romances can get complicated if you allow them. It doesn’t have to be negative for productivity or workplace culture, but it must be managed properly to avoid problems.

Then there’s always the informal mentorships.

Have you started a new job or project and hoped to find a mentor. I always do. Unfortunately, to date, I haven’t come across anyone that I felt would be right for me. Don’t get me wrong some places I worked had a ‘mentorship program’. However, I was looking for something organic than arbitrarily assigned to someone. Research shows that even relatively brief interactions can lead to increasingly transformative developmental relationships. The mere exposure effect in social psychology identifies the value of positive micro-exchanges in the workplace in building informal and increasingly bonded mentoring relationships. Harvard Business Review points that real mentorship starts with company culture, not formal programmes.

On how emotional regulation and making work relationships work.

I touched on emotional regulation when I wrote to you last. Let’s refresh quickly on what’s emotional regulation.

Emotion regulation has been defined as the process by which individuals manage the occurrence, experience, and expression of emotions. It’s our general capacity for recognising and regulating emotions for desired outcomes, or difficulties in modulating emotions with effective strategies.

Have you come across this at work?

‘I’m an engineer and I don’t think about emotions’

This could be your thinking as well.

Many of us underestimate the role emotions play in our decision making, efficiency, productivity and growth. I certainly did not pay attention to it in my 20’s. I was forced to reconsider my thinking as I could see it was clearly not working for my wellbeing. Emotions can be either helpful or harmful, depending on the context.

There’s imperial evidence that emotions can be your strength if they

-Appropriately guide sensory processing
-Enhance decision making
-Provide information regarding the best course of action
-Inform us about others’ behavioural intentions
-Motivate socially appropriate behaviours

For instance episodes of happiness can reinforce new friendships at work or make us see the positive qualities in our peers. Episodes of anger can propel us to fight for causes we care about like diversity and inclusion or equal pay.

Emotions can be dangerous when they are the wrong intensity, duration, frequency, or type for a particular situation, and mal-adaptively bias cognition and behaviour. Like emotions of anger can lead to friction between manager and team members, laughter can be offensive if a junior feels he/she is being laughed at, or anxiety can cripple how we function at work. Such instances of unhelpful emotions require us to consider emotion regulation.

On emotional regulation strategies

There are different strategies we use to regulate our emotions. Some we do consciously and some unconsciously. The goal here is to educate ourselves. To learn to be mindful when we adopt strategies to regulate our emotions. This will result in healthier work relationships.

Situation selection

It’s the most forward-looking of all regulation strategies. Here we take actions that make it more (or less) likely for us to be in a situation that we expect to give rise to desirable (or undesirable) emotions. An example could be how we might intentionally avoid building a personal rapport with a toxic coworker without it affecting our work.

Situation modification

In this case, we take actions that directly alter our situation to change its emotional impact. Situation modification to regulate negative emotions is viewed as a short-term relief but might not always work in the long run. Say we are managing a team and we notice that there’s unhealthy competition between 2 team members. We might modify work situations to see that they do not interact with each other. This could just be a short term solution. A more mindful solution would be to create opportunities for them to collaborate rather than compete.

Attentional deployment

This is a strategy we’ve seen since our infancy all the way through late life. We basically direct our attention to influence our emotional response. A form of attention deployment is distraction. Say you are mildly attracted to a colleague but you are married. You do not want complications in your work relationships. A way to regulate your emotions might be to distract yourself by focusing all your attention on working towards getting a promotion or winning a new project.

Cognitive change

Here we modify our appraisal of a situation to alter its emotional impact. For instance, emotions of jealousy could surface seeing a junior member grow. We can feel threatened. It can hamper our work relationships. This is when we might tell ourselves ‘it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. He/She performing means the company is growing which means I too benefit’.

Response modulation

Here we directly influence experiential, behavioural, or physiological components of the emotional response after the emotion is well developed. Most times situations arise in our lives that are beyond our control. This is where response modulation can be applied. Let’s consider the remote work scenario. We communicate work and non-work-related stuff virtually. Sometimes it’s hard to sense the tone of an email or text. It’s easy to misunderstand the intention. Instead of reacting emotionally, like sending a stinker back, take a deep breath. Observe your emotions. Do a session of reflective journaling where you can actually write what you would have otherwise emailed/texted back. These are some positive response modulation techniques that help you alter your physiological response.

The working relationships we form most often determines how successful we are in our work life. Regulating our emotions thus becomes imperative to nurture healthier work relationships. To thrive at work you should check out different tools that help you with Emotion Regulation. Be it reflective journaling or other tools. It’s worth experimenting.

 

Tiny tips

1. Situation Selection

Here we take actions that make it more (or less) likely for us to be in a situation that we expect to give rise to desirable (or undesirable) emotions.

2. Situation modification 

In this case, we take actions that directly alter our situation to change its emotional impact.

3. Attentional deployment 

We basically direct our attention to influence our emotional response.

4. Cognitive change

Here we modify our appraisal of a situation to alter its emotional impact.

5. Response modulation 

Here we directly influence experiential, behavioural, or physiological components of the emotional response after the emotion is well developed.



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