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How to transform tense office relationships into stimulating ones

Tense relationships at the office can be hard to manage, so try these tips to improve workplace communication and improve company culture.

We’ve all been there.

There’s that person at the office: the one you can’t stand. Or who can’t stand you. Either way, it’s hard being in the office with them around and you don’t know what to do.

Maybe you’ve tried smoothing things over – maybe that’s helped, but maybe you’ve accidentally made it worse. You don’t need to be best friends, but you also don’t want to feel like your co-workers are sharpening their knives behind your back.

At UpTeam, we know that a poor workplace atmosphere contributes not only to decreased productivity, but also to low well-being, high turnover and general misery. No one needs that. So here are our tips for transforming your office relationships for the better.

Brush up on your communication clichés

If you’ve heard them a million times before, that means these nuggets of wisdom are around for a reason. And if you roll your eyes as you read them, that’s as good a sign as any that you need a refresher. Listen up, grasshopper.

…in the eye of the beholder. While the first word here typically is “beauty,” you can easily swap in “relationships.” What you find tense might be totally normal for someone else – before trying to change your relationships, communicate how you see things and find out if the other person sees things the same way.

Be all ears. Sometimes the hardest thing of all seems like it should be the easiest: listening. When you start working with a coworker on your frosty relationship, you’ll see more progress if you sit there and listen to their side first. Nod your head and repeat what you hear. Sit on your urge to state your piece right away – if you hear them out, they’ll be likelier to hear you out at the end.

If you don’t have anything nice to say… This is the office, not the marriage counsellor. If you have a grudge that can’t help but come out ugly, try to figure out if talking will really help things out. All things in moderation.

Open appropriately

There’s often a lot at stake at work. We’ve got important projects on the go, clients to impress and competitors to, well, compete against. We can be forgiven for not having the bandwidth to get to know our coworkers properly.

But this can lead to tense relationships: if we’re constantly looking to impress, or afraid of failure, it’s easy to act in ways that turn our coworkers off without knowing what we’re doing. Making things even more complicated, our miraculous-but-flawed human brains sometimes make it all too easy for smart people to say and do things that are anything but smart. Which is to say that it’s easy to misinterpret someone’s behaviour as hostile if you don’t know where things are coming from – so, if you’re not sure where you stand (and if that’s causing anxiety), open up a little and see where that gets you.

When opening up, though, it’s okay to not treat your coworkers like your close friends. You might not have the energy to sustain the kind of vulnerability that feeds close relationships and that’s okay.

Another thing: it pays to know when it’s worth opening up. Some of your quirks might seem charming to your friends, but some coworkers might not be so generous. Don’t forget to take care of yourself: revealing more of who you are is done best when you have a relatively horizontal work culture – if you’re in a dog-eat-dog environment, you don’t have to invite people to walk all over you to get a better work environment. While everyone does have legitimate needs worth paying attention to (see the next point), some people act like total idiots and it’s not worth the trouble letting them in.

What inclusion actually means

Work can feel like high school all over again. Some people never raise their hand or express themselves. Some people never shut up. We can fall into all these roles and more at different times, and working to include different people’s voices as much as possible can resist office cliques and generate better synergy all around.

As with openness, you have to think realistically. Ideally we’d have the resources to make sure everyone feels seen, heard and included, but with deadlines come compromises. But you can optimize by trying to figure out if there are any key stakeholders who feel left out of discussions or decision-making processes and try to find a way to express their legitimate needs or concerns.

Exclusion breeds resentment. That means tension’s never far behind. To push back against all that, listen to your coworkers to find out what their challenges are. Try to promote collaborative dialog. Make sure everyone has a chance to contribute; those that don’t, remind the team lead. You’ll be surprised at how much more willing (and productive) people become when they feel visible.

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