Seven principles to strengthen relationships at work

photo by John Wenger, 2014.

That’s some good clickbait, huh?

A friend observed “subtle undertones of humour” in my last post, so I thought I’d continue in that vein with a shameless clickbait title.  Following up on that last post, I want to illustrate something that is the realm of “soft skills” (eurgh) but is far from soft: maintaining healthy and robust workplace relationships.

I know I seem to bang on about sociometry (the quality of relationships and how we deepen them), and I won’t apologise for that, because I believe it is central to making all that wonderful stuff about the “Future of Work” and “21st century workplaces” happen.

Healthy and robust workplace relationships are important not merely so that work is more joyful and satisfying, though that, in itself, is a major drawcard.  If we don’t have these healthy and robust relationships, we may miss out on opportunities for innovation, collaboration and learning.  How can we work closely together if we can’t bring what makes us different and unique to the table, and then work out how to synthesise all that into something innovative?  How can we be open to learning strange new ideas and practices from others unless we know that we have each other’s best interests at heart?  How can we weave our unique ideas and approaches into something bigger and stronger than a bunch of individual and competing things?  How can we challenge each other’s thinking and have honest conversations unless we have a base of trust and caring for one another?  When I see a team that rows well together, I suspect that they also row well together.  (See what I did there with “row”?)

The Seven Principles referred to in the title are not mine, I have merely adapted them for the work context.  Many, many moons ago when training as a counsellor, I learnt about John Gottman and his Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  Some say that he is one of most influential therapists of the 20th century and I know from experience that these principles are powerful things.

One of the reasons I like principles is because they are not steps.  In the arena of human relationships, there is no such thing as a “step 1, step 2” approach; this is, of course, down to the complexity of us as humans and the greater complexity of humans relating to humans.   We can, however, have principles; they can act like a compass which helps to guide us to where we want to be.

I recently fished out Gottman’s Principles, adapted them and shared them with a team I have been working with.  Through the whole process, the state of their working relationships has underpinned every conversation that unfolded.  In order to assist them to work through the decision-making, standards of work, communication and leadership conversations that they said they needed to have in order to improve things at work, they needed to have a solid base from which to operate: their relationships.  I likened the quality of their relationships to the health of the backbone upon which all the other stuff hung.  If we take care of our backbones, we have a sturdy, yet flexible central core which enables us to do most of the stuff we need to do in life.  Anyone who has ever put their back out will know what I’m talking about.

Throughout the work with this team, I wove in moments where they could practice some of what is held within these seven principles and also to reflect on the impact of doing this onto the quality of their conversations and the quality of what came out of the conversations, so that they could learn and integrate these principles into how they might go about their work henceforth.  These principles are:

Grow compassion:  when we know each other on a human level we enhance our ability to be comfortable with each other.  We can identify with others on a range of criteria and know deeply that there is more that binds us than separates us.  This can include something about our personal and home lives, what we enjoy doing in our down time, what we aspire to, what values drive us to live our lives and do the work we do, even smaller things like what kind of foods we like, what sports teams we support and what TV shows or movies we watch.  It’s not small talk; it’s more criteria on which to base connection and affinity.

Nurture fondness and admiration:  recall past good co-working experiences together; express appreciation for one another’s characteristics, strengths and actions; show gratitude for help given, cups of tea made, birthdays acknowledged.  Solid relationships are characterised by people having an appreciation and positive view of one another.

Turn towards each other, not away from:  being available to others builds an “emotional bank account” that helps when times get tougher.  Have stress-reducing conversations that act as a release valve, rather than letting things build up; be available to others for this.  This may include things at work or things outside of work.  Spotting someone who seems out-of-sorts and offering an opening gambit may help to cement the trust between you.  Small, helpful, day-to-day acts let others know you care; don’t play the “you go first” game.  Seeing opportunities to meet others’ needs goes a long way and we don’t need to wait till others do it for us first.

Let others influence you:  there is an exercise that actors use where one person lies on the floor, eyes closed, while four others pick up a limb each and move it about.  The purpose is to become more reflective on how willing they are to let others influence them.  We do not need to be in control of everything that goes on around us.  If we are to develop good and mutual relationships, we need to be open to what others bring.  Sometimes, yielding is the better option and one which generates a win-win.  Play the “yes game” with people.  This does mean we always acquiesce to others’ opinions and perspectives; only that we allow them to be active partners in conversation and that we entertain the notion that our way is not the only way.  Notice how often we find ourselves uttering the words, “No, I think we should…” without even kicking the other person’s idea around first.

Solve your solvable problems:  Gottman observed that amongst couples, about 70% of the things they argued about remained unsolved over long periods of time.  These were related to differences in values, beliefs or fundamentally different needs in life.  For these perpetual problems, establishing a trusting and caring dialogue and agreeing to disagree are useful approaches. For such problems, because the couples Gottman observed had a strong foundation of mutual care and admiration, they were able to see the differences as just differences, not things to be changed or stamped out.  At work, this may mean we become mindful, over time, what the “non-negotiables” are, so that we don’t focus on them and create roadblocks, and that we work with those things that are actually solvable.

Gottman has said that “repair” is the sine qua non of relationships.  Even though he was working in the context of marriage and couple relationships, I’d say this was a good rule of thumb for workplace relationships (or indeed, any relationship which we wish to sustain).  One of my early learnings when working with children and young people with attachment disorders was the principle of Rupture and Repair.  We all need to learn, when growing up, that people we love make mistakes with us.  If they recognise the rupture they have created, the next bit is to repair.  If we don’t get this modelled to us by our primary caregivers, it can be hard to navigate relationships in later life because we have a lesser developed capacity to recognise when we have done wrong by others and that it is up to us to take steps to repair the damage.  By growing a healthy Rupture and Repair cycle, we will also learn something about dealing with disappointment.  If someone we love does something to disappoint us, we learn, when they make repair attempts and to soothe our our hurt feelings, that we can surmount disappointments with relationships intact and often, even stronger.  Just as important as making repair attempts is recognising when the other is making such an attempt; it’s a mutual thing.  No point in remaining unbending when the other is trying to put things right.

Overcome gridlock:  Some of our differences are solvable, some are perpetual and some descend into gridlock when there is little dialogue about them and they become hidden agendas.  As such issues become more ossified, they become barriers to good relationships.  It’s useful to do the courageous thing and bring these hidden things out into the light.  Discuss what the gridlock is, open a dialogue, agree to disagree, soothe one another and realise that it might be an ongoing issue, but one that is best kept out in the open rather than stashed away to ferment.

Gottman advised that in order to overcome relationship gridlock, to become aware of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness.  When faced with hidden agendas, we all invite one or more of the Four Horsemen in.  These only serve to maintain a state of opposition and do damage to a relationship.  A little self-awareness goes a long way and ….. what was that expression? ….”pride and grace ne’er dwelt in one place.”

Create shared meaning: In the realm of couple relationships, this refers to finding that deeper, perhaps spiritual meaning.  In the context of workplace relationships, this may also be the case, depending on the work that you all do together.  For example, there may be some higher purpose that binds you together if you are working in one of the “caring professions”.   I’ve always found it beneficial at times to open conversations such as, “Why are we all here together?”  Nowadays, more organisations are realising that focussing on some purpose above and beyond “increasing shareholder value” is essential for a business to be sustainable and successful.  Within teams, shared meaning can come about when there are rituals of togetherness, such as a regular shared lunch or out-of-work activity.  The team I referred to at the beginning of this post had a ritual of shared breakfasts, which gave them a stage on which to connect and prepare for the day, to share stories of good moments from the work and to enjoy just being together.  This was just one part of the rich culture they had created together and which served as the foundation upon which they do their very challenging work.

While there is much written about how modern workplaces need to devote more time, attention and energy to better co-working practices, HOW to do that is often glossed over or assumptions made that people will just do it.  However, we are in a realm that benefits from “feeder fields” such as counselling and therapy.  It is my belief that the move to humanise workplaces needs to access wisdom from other fields, and Gottman’s principles certainly fit.



If you would like to know more about this or are interested in having a conversation with me about how I might assist you, your team or your organisation better meet the needs of people at work, please contact me via Twitter or this blog.

3 thoughts on “Seven principles to strengthen relationships at work

  1. I’ve long been a fan of Gottman’s 7 Principles but had never thought about applying them in the workplace. Makes complete and wonderful sense and has given me a lot to think about in doing my own work. Thank you!

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