(Re)Learning to Relate

April 12, 2021

Thank goodness for outdoor patios. After months of not seeing dear friends, we stood outside, masked and shivering on New Year’s Day.  It was uplifting to see them but we were out of practice. In Kate Murphy’s recent New York Times piece, “We’re All Socially Awkward Now,”, she writes:

“Research on prisoners, hermits, soldiers, astronauts, polar explorers, and others who have spent extended periods in isolation indicates social skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use.”

Okay, so it’s not just us. Maybe we’ve always been socially awkward in the workplace. Since relationships are the most important part of our human lives, it’s essential we learn how to relate in spite of the remote work environment. Gallup research shows people who strongly agree they have a close friend at work are more than twice as likely to be engaged (63%) compared with the people who say otherwise (29%).

To relate is the art of cultivating authentic and constructive relationships in the workplace.  Right now, it’s the perfect time to lean into these six ways for building and maintaining authentic relationships so that both individuals and teams can flourish.

1.    Self-awareness

We cannot be successful at building relationships unless we understand ourselves and how we are emotionally contagious.  One concrete way to grow in awareness is through psychometric assessments like the EQ, which measures our usage of the 15 Emotional Intelligence skills.  The intel about our own dispositions helps us shift from self-knowledge into self-awareness, to see our own behavior, and recalibrate accordingly.

2. Contextual Boundaries

Boundaries are key to relating, however, they may need refining because of the atypical usage we have needed to employ during a yearlong global pandemic.  When forming a new relationship, consider a slower pace that is established by observing the other person’s behavior and then calibrate your boundaries accordingly. We use the metaphor of rolling up or down a car window based on the level of trust the other person has earned. Over time, if the car window is lowered and mutual disclosure occurs, the relationship will grow in closeness.  During this pandemic, in many ways, we have had to roll up our car window with our closest relationships (skipping holidays, social distancing, forgetting how to hug) and roll down our windows with formerly distant colleagues (the CEO in your living room, the HR director connecting you to therapy).

3. Values 

Our values influence how and with whom we connect. For example, if a potential friend and I both seem to value “self-control,” we may bond over our mutual regiment of exercise or diet. But even if I don’t value self-control as much as they do, I can still express admiration for their self-discipline.  Connecting over values reduces Affinity Distance, in contrast with Physical or Operational Distance.   Affinity Distance is, in essence, the degree to which team members share cultural values, similarities in communication style, and attitudes toward work.  Minimizing Affinity Distance expedites creativity, collaboration and teamwork.  Especially now, when relating in the remote environment, focus on weaving values into how you connect with and inspire each other.

4. Affinity

Building affinity is underscoring our similarities, being cooperative with each other, and being genuinely complementary.  We build affinity when we are truly interested in one another.  Once we understand that others are more prone to like us if we, in fact, first like them, we have more control.  We can begin the flywheel of relationship reciprocity by authentically uncovering what is likable about the other person to begin to build a meaningful, trusting relationship.

5. Trust

In a 2016 survey, 55% of CEOs believe a lack of trust in the workplace constitutes a foundational threat to their company.  Harvard researchers, Frances X. Frei and Anne Morriss studied the dimensions of trust and summarized their findings into a simple trust triangle.  

  • Authenticity: “I experience the real you.”  
  • Logic/Judgement: “I know you can do it; your reasoning and judgment are sound and reliable.”  
  • Empathy: “I believe you care about me and my success.”  

We lose trust in others when one of these three trust drivers begins to wobble. We must understand both the mechanics of trust as well as our own skillfulness with the driver in order to succeed in relating well.  

6. Repairing

We will likely find ourselves needing to forgive others or ask forgiveness in order to repair our relationship. Repair requires vulnerability and necessitates that we follow steps;

  • Actively use communication. 
  • Accept and affirm them.
  • Accept and affirm yourself.
  • Self disclose when appropriate.
  • Truly embrace diversity (communication, values, and viewpoints) in the relationship. 

In our own work relationships, as well as in our own marriage, we have found that repairing a relationship requires that both parties begin by making a genuine verbal commitment to repair trust, they ask each other to serve as accountability partners and compassionately steer each other toward the aspired behaviors.

Relationships bring us meaning, resilience, joy, creativity, and yes, professional networks.  After this yearlong crucible which has left us all a little awkward, it’s time to hone the concrete skills of relating for the long term success of our teams and ourselves.

Kedren Crosby is President of Work Wisdom LLC, a firm specializing in positive organizational behavior.  Sarah J. Colantonio is the Founding Partner of Work Wisdom LLC.   They are the hosts of The Behaviorist podcast and authors of Authentic Communication.