"The quality of our relationship at work determines the actual quality of our work and our overall ability to succeed."
~ Esther Perel
The average person spends eight-plus hours at work. When a workplace is healthy, workers feel appreciated, empowered, and fulfilled. However, if you work in an unhealthy or toxic work environment you can feel unappreciated, overlooked, overworked, and disregarded. The mental health impact of that can include anxiety, depression, and poor sleep.
Depending on which research you cite, 60-85% of people are unhappy at work. I am saddened and intrigued by these figures. If so many people are unhappy at work, why do they stay?
For most of us change is scary and many people have a ‘better the devil you know’ attitude. Instead of moving on, we torture ourselves with the following thoughts: what if the next boss is a bully? What if I hate the next job even more?, at least the money is good here, or it things could get better.
Evidence supports that the main reason people stay in bad jobs or toxic work situations is that they're afraid to risk going to something worse.
In my own case, the very first job I had in Australia was in retail in a very toxic and unhealthy dynamic. My boss was a classic bully who believed that the way to get the best out of his staff was to keep them on their toes. He did that by creating a pecking order that was not based on skill or length of service but just in order of favourites. Those at the top of the pecking order became bullies and treated the rest of us like subordinates. They would go for drinks with the boss after work and the rest of us were not invited.
I dreaded going to work and I felt anxious and isolated. I coped by switching off, just focusing on my work and pretending that it did not upset me, but it did.
A recent article in Psychology Today about bullying and misbehaviour in the workplace states that, with an ever-changing cast of workers, and a lack of social connections, the incidence of bad behaviour in the workplace increases. Rather than working as a team, some people see the workplace as a competitive environment, with other employees as the competition for scarce jobs and resources. Sometimes encouraged by management, and coupled with apathy from other employees, bullies are able to get away (and get ahead) with their bad behaviour.
In contrast to the experience above, I managed a boutique for 4 years for the most supportive, generous and considerate employers I've ever worked for. They acknowledged and recognised all of my efforts and continually rewarded me any time I excelled. I always felt that I over-exceeded their expectations and they were vocal in their praises of me and my work. I wanted to get to work every day and I went above and beyond to continually please them.
It was a healthy work environment and there was a healthy relationship between co-workers, managers and bosses.
We can not underestimate how important relationships with our co-workers impact our performance and our well-being. I totally agree with Esther Perel's quote that "the quality of our relationships at work determines the actual quality of our work and our overall ability to succeed".
In a recent article on the Humor That Works website, the author identifies 7 types of work relationships below.
Types of relationships at work
Co-worker relationships are neither professional nor personal, but merely circumstantial. They are acquaintances through your company, but beyond working for the same organisation, you have very little interaction with them.
Role: Co-workers serve a valuable role in that they are often the pool of people from which other, more meaningful relationships will be established.
Even though you may not form close friendships with co-workers, maintaining a friendly relationship with these people means work is enjoyable or at least bearable.
2) Team Members
Team members are fellow employees who work on the same team as you. This could be the team you work with on a daily basis, a committee you’ve joined or a group working together for a single activity.
Role: Team members are important because they are the people you actually accomplish work with. Together, you plan, design, develop, execute and track work related to your role. The better your relationship with your team, the easier it is to get this work completed.
The team member dynamic can mirror those of our family and can be triggering. It's important to pay attention if you find yourself acting out in ways you do with your siblings. If that happens you may be playing out your family system's dynamic.
3) Work Friends
Work Friends are people who you interact with socially at work, you sit by them in meetings, go to lunch together, talk to them at work events and happy hours, and possibly even see them outside of work every now and then.
Role: Work Friends fill our social needs and keep us sane from the daily grind. You likely wouldn’t be friends with them if not for your mutual employment of each other at the same company, but they serve as our support system during corporate hours.
4) Manager/Direct Report
Your Manager is the one assigning you the work, helping you succeed and ultimately impacting the work you do (and don’t do). Your Direct Reports are the ones who report to you (you are their manager). They also determine whether or not you succeed.
Role: The relationship between you and your manager is vital because they often play an important role in determining your rating, salary and career plan. They are also a large factor in your workplace satisfaction (as they say, you don’t leave a company, you leave your manager).
This relationship can be challenging as there is a structural power imbalance which can make it difficult to speak up if there is a boundary violation.
5) Office Spouse
Your Office Spouse is that person you spend a significant amount of time with; they are your go-to for venting and advice, and there have probably been rumours about the two of you at one time or another (even though it is platonic).
Role: The role of the Office Spouse is to serve as your “workplace bestie” or go-to friend when you have a work predicament. They keep you from jumping off the ledge, are the person you trust with sharing your emotions and frustrations, and know you the best out of any of your workplace relationships.
Mentor/Mentee is the highest professional relationship you can have. It’s similar in intimacy to that of an Office Spouse, but it serves you professionally. Your mentor is that person you go to for career guidance and help on the toughest-of-the-tough problems. Your mentee is the one coming to you for that advice.
Role: Your Mentor helps you traverse the landscape at your job. They help you think through the most challenging problems, give you perspective on how to handle your most challenging relationships, and generally guide you to success. You serve the same purpose for your Mentee, while they keep you grounded and connected to the pulse of the organisation.
7) Life Friends
The most intimate work relationship you can have is one that you don’t even consider specific to work–that of a friend IRL (in real life). They would be your friends even if you no longer worked at the company.
Role: These are friends who fill the same role as your normal social friends, because that’s what they are. You have fun together, laugh together, cry together, and possibly become romantically involved together. They aren’t friends you know at work, they are friends you happen to work with.
Setting boundaries in the workplace
Setting boundaries at work can be frightening because there is so much at stake. Because our work is our livelihood, there are legitimate reasons why we would be hesitant to speak our minds if there are boundary violations.
Below are 9 simple steps to help you set boundaries with your co-workers, colleagues, and even your boss or manager.
Know your values. Understanding your values helps you figure out what behaviour or requests are acceptable to you. The work culture may be that everyone works overtime without being paid. It's important that you decide if that is ok with you.
Communicate clearly, and lay out your limits very clearly.
Bring up a boundary or violation right away. If you cannot approach the person directly, seek support from a colleague or HR if the company has one.
Create structure and clear parameters. Again this is about what is acceptable for you and how you will go about communicating this.
Know what you are willing to put up with and what you are not.
Focus on concrete explanations. Keep it really simple. We tend to over-explain when we are anxious.
Prepare for violations - this means it's unlikely that once you've set a boundary, the other person's behaviour will change immediately. Understand that it may take time, and be prepared to re-instate your boundary.
Set aside your emotions. This is hard because we do get emotional when we experience a boundary violation, but if we get too emotional it's difficult for us to articulate our needs clearly. Being overly emotional in the workplace can also appear to be unprofessional.
Practice with someone you trust first. This is my favourite one, practice with your office spouse or bestie so you get used to hearing yourself speak the words.
Having healthy boundaries and good work relationships is vital for mental health and well-being so take the time to develop both. If you want some support around boundaries, check out my self-paced workshop, Boundary course. Saying No Without Apology! today
Lots of hugs until next time.