Last reviewed 25 August 2015

How close do we have to be to our colleagues? Gudrun Limbrick looks at relationships at work.

In many instances, we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our friends and family members. The difference is that we cannot choose our colleagues as we do our friends and we do not have genetic similarities to soften the blow as we do with family members. Yet colleagues see us at our worst — first thing on a Monday morning; at times of great stress — and occasionally at our best when we are working efficiently and are rewarded for doing so.

Good relationships at work can turn into friendships that last for decades. Excellent relationships can end up in marriage. However, a poor relationship can cast a cloud over each and every working day, and sometimes even end up in someone leaving their job. Is there any way of managing this people lottery or, in work terms, does it not really matter at all?

Recent research carried out by VoucherCloud (the mobile voucher app) has found that, of the 2500 asked, 48% said that they did not like the majority of their work colleagues. That nearly 50% of people do not like the colleagues they are thrown together with almost at random is probably not surprising. Walk into any supermarket, library, swimming pool or pub and the chances are that all but the most tolerant of people will find someone they do not like in there.

Lock the doors and insist that we spend the day together with them, and the number we do not like will rise significantly. Ask us to work together to perform a task, things are likely to look ever more gloomy in friendship terms.

Any work place will have a range of people from different backgrounds, at different life stages, with different outlooks on life, and perhaps even different views on the work to be done. Add to that mix the fact that team members may actually be in competition with each other (to be employee of the month, to get the best sales figures, to be in line for the next promotion), things can get tense and the differences between people can become exaggerated.

There may also be unfair work practices at play — one person being paid more than another or having a lighter workload, for example — which exacerbate small personality differences.

The key thing

The key thing to accept is perhaps that there is no reason why everyone in an office or in a team has to like each other. The chances are that they will not, so it is unrealistic to castigate ourselves when we do not like someone. It is important to try to remember this because it is all too easy to forget and we then panic that work is going to be awful because we are not going to spend our weekends around a communal barbecue or in the local pub.

While you do not have to like your colleagues, it is important to have a good working relationship. Very few of us work in complete isolation from others and so the chances are we will have to foster a working relationship with at least one other person and immediate managers. The key to establishing an effective working relationship is to be friendly — there is a difference to being friendly and actually being friends, polite and appreciative of the good work or considerate things that they do in the course of their work. This does not mean being fake and pretending to like them when you do not, but being a genial and respectful colleague and focusing on the job rather than the personality. A key part of being friendly and respectful is not indulging in gossip and talk behind their backs.

One of the roles of the management in this is to deter a culture of gossip and talking about people behind their backs in an organisation. All efforts to establish effective working relationships can be damaged through this type of idle chatter if not nipped in the bud by the organisation. This is not an easy feat — a 2010 survey by OnePoll found that two-thirds of workers they asked said that they regularly gossiped about their colleagues for an average of 20 minutes a day.

Of course, not liking or not particularly getting on with a colleague is very different from actively disliking or hating a colleague. This sort of bad feeling can make an individual dread going into work or jeopardise team effectiveness by avoiding contact with the individual, making life difficult for them or openly rowing.

For individuals involved in such a bad relationship, there may be scope for some soul-searching to ask themselves why they cannot get this onto a more healthy footing. Why do you not like them? Do they remind you of someone else? Do they know your triggers to wind you up? Very often, it is not actually personalities which really wind people up but bad feeling brought about by more tangible considerations — do they have the best desk, the ear of the boss? Is that actually the source of the resentment rather than the person themselves? HR can have a role to play in facilitating this sort of thinking which might give both individuals a fresh perspective and a way of moving forward.

What a manager can do

A hands-on manager should be able to see when problems are bubbling away and talk to both parties to try to get to the bottom of it. If there has been unfair treatment (or perceived unfair treatment), there may also be a case for righting these wrongs to reduce any associated resentment.

Where the relationship has got so bad that it is tipping over (or potentially tipping over) into bullying and harassment, strict adherence to the bullying policy of the company must be adhered to, with the victims referred to some sort of counselling and support if necessary. Hopefully, working through the issues with both parties to help all understand why problems have arisen and working to finding a solution will mean that the relationship will never get as bad as this.

Again, it is important to talk equally with both parties (although not at the same time) so that all feel they are being treated equally.

There is often a temptation to a team with poor relationships to go into team-building days or to encourage social meetings. These need to be introduced with caution as they can have the opposite effect to that intended. A team getting on badly (or where just two members are getting on badly) forced into a team-building or social situation without real understanding of the dynamics of the relationship can mean the situation is exacerbated — particularly if alcohol is involved.

There is certainly no reason why friendships cannot exist between all staff members but, where these exist, it does not necessarily follow that team work or efficiency will be improved. A company’s aim should be to foster great working relationships where people can communicate with each other in a genial, appreciative and respectful fashion.

Deterring gossip can help this enormously and good communication with staff members can mean that any severe problems between individuals can be ironed out before they impact on the working relationships of those involved and on the morale of the team as a whole. The most effective managers have a light touch in this regard and great listening skills.