How to boost morale as well as output

Strengthening relationships at work goes a long way, reports Karen Hainsworth

Strong working relationships can do that, but many of us don't even attempt to develop our communication with our colleagues, preferring to remain in the safety zone of what we know. Developing strong working relationships involves risk, says Graham Lee, director of occupational psychologists OCG. And because project teams form and disband with increasing speed, those risks need to be taken sooner.

Lee's company has come up with the idea of "speed teams", derived from the idea of speed dating. "These days, people need to form relationships very rapidly. Our workshops help individuals move quickly towards trust. The quickest way to that is to encourage each party to be open, not only about their strengths but also about what they might not be so good at."

He admits that this takes emotional maturity and confidence and needs to be done in a supportive environment. And he even warns against openness in critical cultures.

Even if we don't get on with our colleagues, we can still work together effectively. Understanding a person's social context, the pressures that a person is under and what's important to them can help, says Dr Angela Carter, research fellow at the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield.

"The idea is to appreciate others' perception and avoid judging them if their view differs from yours. Getting to know them and what they do will help you value their contribution in the workplace." Very often, people who dislike each other are able to work together by rallying towards a goal rather than concentrating on their differences.

The more senior your role, the more important it is to build connections with people by understanding their skills and experience. "It's useful when a problem comes up that you have no experience of. You then have somebody you can refer to," says Dr Carter. Develop your relationship by rewarding those that have helped you, she suggests, and offers a simple starting point. "The workplace would be a far nicer place if people said 'thank you' a bit more often."

Relationships go through clear stages, says Lee, in their journey toward strength and resilience. "Initially you each have a picture of what you want from the other person. The early part of the relationship is about checking what transactions will work."

To take your relationship to the next phase, it's important not only to understand what you want but to be clear about what the other person wants, too. Discuss it openly to avoid misunderstandings.

If the relationship progresses naturally, you begin to share personal information and look for things that you have in common, whether that's areas of work experience or information about your personal life. There is much more of a human dimension to this phase and you gradually develop a warmth toward each other. But this doesn't necessarily make for a strong relationship, warns Lee; there needs to be a make or break stage where the bond is tested.

"That's a crucial stage. Working through differences is powerful. There's a moment at the end of a difficult conversation when things will feel a bit fragile, but actually you have got to a more robust place. What's so powerful about deeply resilient relationships in organisations is that they are much more productive. People perform more effectively and feel happier."

You can improve your working relationships by identifying the five people who influence you and how you do your job, says Lee. Then, on a scale of one to five rate the relationship and consider how much it needs to improve.

Ask yourself, "In what ways can I work with this person to cultivate a more positive relationship? Do I need to develop conversations about what we are going to achieve together? Do I need to develop warmth by getting to know them? Do I need to be more challenging about shortfalls in performance?" The key question is, "How would we know if we were getting the most out of our working relationship? How would we feel and act?" And then look at why you're not doing that.