February 25, 2020

Your peer relationships at work deserve more attention

There’s no shortage of guidance on how to navigate your working relationships with your manager and your direct reports. You can’t throw a stone in an airport bookstore without hitting five books about being a better manager.

But what about peer relationships? “Managing sideways” presents its own challenges, and keeping those relationships healthy and supportive is more important than you might think.

Why your peer relationships matter 

We all know we usually spend more time with our co-workers than our family and friends, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our peer relationships dominate a lot of our time. Beyond the hours we spend with them, our success depends on our peer relationships. Just some of the ways positive peer relationships can improve your life are: 

  • Happiness. Tension on your team makes going to work a chore, or worse—something to dread. But when your working relationships are on solid ground, the office can be a genuinely enjoyable place to be. 
  • Support. Positive relationships mean more help when things get chaotic—and they will get chaotic at one time or another.
  • Future bosses/direct reports. Your peers won’t be your peers forever and the state of your working relationships will be important if one of you ever manages the other. 
  • Success. Being able to collaborate effectively across the organization is important, and it doesn’t go unnoticed

Three things to avoid (and how to avoid them) 

You have a lot of peers in a workplace, and each one has different needs to support a positive, collaborative relationship. Here are some foundational guardrails that will benefit every relationship. 

Being too competitive

Work isn’t a zero-sum game; others don’t need to lose for you to win. Yes, sometimes you’ll be up against someone for a promotion, but most day-to-day work is not a competition. Your team is working toward a shared mission, and no one is (intentionally) creating obstacles in your path.

Compared to manager conflict, conflict with a peer is 15.9% more likely to negatively impact an employee’s engagement.

Bravely session data

Harmful gossip

As hard as it can be to face conflict, awkwardness, or discord head-on, it’s ultimately much healthier than leaving something unspoken, or, worse, talking behind someone’s back. Even without malicious intent, gossip can erode trust and allow hostility to fester.

(Read more: Workplace gossip is inevitable. Here’s how to keep it from turning toxic.)

Ignoring boundaries 

Everyone bonds with their peers differently, and it’s important to pick up on their cues and respect them. This does mean it takes time to build those relationships, but the connections you make will be more genuine and long-lasting. Plus, when there’s something you don’t want to talk about or do with coworkers, they’ll respect your wishes because you’ve always done the same for them. 

Ways to build positive peer relationships 

There are a lot of ways to grow closer to your colleagues and, like we mentioned, different people need different things from their working relationships. But here are two mindsets to hold onto in any situation:

Be helpful. Whether it’s volunteering to help on a project when a colleague is under a tight deadline or going to lunch with someone who needs to vent, seize opportunities to support your peers. Small gestures add up, and you’ll grow closer as you learn more about the awesome people you work with.

(Read more: How you can use micro-affirmations to fight bias in the workplace.)

Be vulnerable. Ask for help, admit when you’re stressed, and let people see you as a whole person. These acts create windows for others to reach out and support you — support you can then reciprocate. 

Giving constructive feedback 

It might seem odd to talk about constructive feedback alongside building positive relationships, but providing feedback in an empathetic, thoughtful way can actually improve how you get along with your peers because you’re showing that you value them and want to see them thrive. Work relationships can handle tough conversations and the best teams help each other grow.

(Read more: Your working relationships can handle tough conversations.)

When you’re giving feedback, make sure you’re in a private setting, focus on the facts, and be future-focused — in combination, all of these will make the other person feel more comfortable and mitigate the risk of misunderstanding or overreaction

Your colleagues are in the trenches with you every day. You may not have to be friends with them, but you do have to be able to work well together. Healthy peer relationships will help your career (and those of your peers) but, more than that, they’ll make work a more enjoyable place to be.

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