Why good working relationships matter

An image showing a web of 2 dimensional human avatars on wooden tiles connected by straight lines

The relationships we hold at work are some of the most important in our lives.

We spend a large part of our day interacting with colleagues and these relationships, and how well we attain and maintain them, can make the difference between a promotion or juicy assignment.

Across the APM Group, we work with many organisations and individuals who are seeking to improve the way their workplace supports and builds good relationships.

Research shows managers are significantly less stressed when they have solid relationships with employees, and reported job satisfaction increases almost 50% when a worker develops close relationships at work.

Strong relationships are rooted in trust, with employees at highly trusted companies reporting less stress, more energy, higher productivity, fewer sick days, higher engagement, and less burnout.

Like many parts of life, workplace relationships, disagreements and conflict occur on a spectrum.

Green, Amber and Red Zones on the spectrum of healthy and unhealthy relationships

The different zones reflect the three levels of intervention we adopt – primary (green zone), secondary (amber zone) and tertiary (red zone).

By the time we get to a tertiary intervention, the red zone, our team is attempting to repair substantial damage, both to the individuals involved and the organisation.

Keep it green

At work, as in life, keeping relationships respectful and civil is the goal. And in the vast majority of cases, we succeed.

But as you know, no workplace is conflict-free. We all need a certain level of conflict to simply get things done, and to make good choices and decisions.

There is not a single individual who you will agree with on everything, no matter how much you like them.

What keeps us in the green, however, is being able to:

  1. Manage conflict and disagreements in a civil and respectful manner
  2. Reach resolutions and decisions regardless

Being able to manage these situations well is a product of both organisational culture and individual skill. For a highly functioning business, it is important to invest in both.

Deal with conflict in a healthy way

Of the hundreds of issues, big and small, that arise during a workday, very few warrant deep emotional investment and tough conversations.

Some issues have major consequences – personally and professionally.

For the ‘big ticket’ conflict items, it is critical we approach these mindfully – with the goal of maintaining positive and constructive workplace relationships.

In most instances, effective navigation of such situations comes down to having a ‘crucial conversation’.

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How to have a crucial conversation

‘Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when the stakes are high’ (Patterson, 2011) is considered by many to be the bible for supporting individuals in positive and difficult discussions, and for maintaining workplace civility and productivity in the face of conflict.

  1. Challenge yourself to identify important moments and be mindful about how you deal with them – this takes practice and training – the more you do it, the better you will be. You can enhance your training through structured mindfulness training, such as meditation and journaling. (see this mindful living tip sheet from Assure for some ideas, watch this short video from FBG, or visit Smiling Mind)
  2. Set aside time for preparation – these important conversations deserve additional preparation and thought. However, in many instances, you will need to respond in the moment – this is where your mindfulness training should help.
  3. Deeply consider the other party(ies) position – where are they coming from and why are they adopting their position on this issue? Aim for a generous and positive approach and remove as much emotion as you can from your thought process.
  4. Take some time to understand and try to articulate the ‘why’ of your position – why is it you believe in a certain approach?
  5. Remember that the goal is not to agree, but to reach a position of understanding and respect - from that position, you can then move into a respectful negotiation and reach decisions and outcomes with civility and acceptance.

Tips for leaders

  1. Promote and reward civility in the workplace.
  2. Ensure your workplace is a psychosocially-safe environment.
  3. Create frameworks and supports to give employees the time and space to have crucial conversations.
  4. Offer employees a safety-net – if the initial dialogue doesn’t reach the desired outcome, a pathway to resolution must be readily available, to ensure you ultimately avoid the ‘red zone’. An example pathway may include options for employees to access 1:1 coaching (internal or external), shared coaching and mediation/facilitated discussion supports.

What is incivility? (and why is it important?)

Put simply, incivility is another word for rudeness.

Being uncivil in the workplace can take many forms, and, sadly, is on the rise.

Civility matters, in life and in the workplace. Holding ourselves to basic standards of interpersonal behaviour, and following accepted social norms, allows us to live and work together effectively.

“Incivility often comes from the pressures individuals perceive they are experiencing. Whether these pressures are real or not, one can’t just blame their organisation, their workload or ‘other people’ – accepting responsibility for their own behaviour is essential,” explains Paul Clifford from FBG Group.

“As an example, Joe may believe he is being treated unfairly, responding with thoughts like ‘I shouldn’t have to put up with this’."

“Such thinking can lead to behaviours that disrespect other people and, ultimately, create destructive conflict.”

A Harvard Business Review survey of over 800 workers found incivility in the workplace has substantial costs, including 40% or more of respondents reporting that they intentionally decreased their work effort, their time spent at work and the quality of their work.

“Organisations are unlikely to change uncivil behaviour through blame or zero tolerance,” said Paul.

“Instead, it’s about influencing individuals as to why it’s in their best interests to be civil in the workplace, that it makes your work life easier and makes you more likely to achieve and progress at work.”

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What is psychosocial safety? (and how can I achieve it?)

A workplace that is psychosocially safe is one where employee’s mental health is prioritised and protected.

This is achieved through policies and practices, listening and feedback mechanisms, performance metrics and reward mechanisms.

A psychosocially-safe environment is one in which an employee feels safe from psychological harm and has a safe mechanism to raise concerns and have them resolved without negative consequence.

“Psychosocial safety is a term that can create confusion and be misused,” said Paul.

“Rather than using such a term it is more useful for organisations to focus on the desired outcome - creating an atmosphere where people feel they can express themselves, knowing that no organisation can do that perfectly.”


Further resources