I’ve had the good pleasure of working with many great people through the years. I’ve been on teams that got along well, enjoyed each other, helped each other, and befriended one another outside of work while accomplishing much for the business. Such experiences have fostered long-term relationships that carry on long after we no longer work on the same team. That is not to say that all work relationships have been stellar. As expected, there are some people I haven’t gotten along with for whatever reasons. Fortunately, those are rare exceptions.
As I think about the range of possibilities for work relationships, I see the following primary types in the workplace regularly:
- True friendship. This is the most satisfying type of relationship for me. It is one that lasts beyond working together. It leads you to help each other, be patient, try to understand, give willingly, share openly, be honest, and to be on the receiving end of those behaviors as well. This kind of relationship doesn’t happen quickly. It doesn’t happen automatically just because you spend a lot of time together. It happens for the same reasons friendships outside of work come to pass – making connections with kindred spirits where something positive clicks between you. Having true friends at work makes collaboration easy, although there is the potential down side of letting personal feelings interfere with making the best business decisions at times. Having colleagues transform into friends makes it more difficult when the work relationship ends, but it makes the time together more enjoyable.
- Cooperative Professionalism. This is the most frequent type of work relationship in my experience. These are not relationships that are likely to intentionally continue when one leaves the company, but they serve the company well while working together. These range from very infrequent interactions to more frequent, and they seem to be transactional more than relational. Like cogs in a wheel that do their job to keep the corporate machinery moving forward, these relationships serve their purpose for the individuals and the business, and do so in a positive, professional manner. There is no real emotional connection present or necessary in these types of relationships. Accomplishing business objectives and doing so with professional courtesy drive what happens. This is the type of relationship that is most appropriate for managers to have with their subordinates, and what is likeliest between most coworkers. While it’s certainly possible for managers and subordinates to be friends, making that work can be like walking through a minefield.
- Adversarial. Fortunately, I’ve encountered very few of these types of relationships through 40+ years of work. These are the toxic, frustrating relationships that not only hinder getting work done, but make the process miserable at times along the way. Motivations for someone behaving in this manner are as varied as the individuals involved, but may be due to attempts to climb the corporate ladder, maintain control of some aspect of the business, competing priorities, personality clashes, perceived threats, lack of trust, or hidden motivations we may never understand. There is no good excuse for these kinds of relationships to exist, but we all know that they do.
With so much time spent at work for the majority of adults, it’s important to have good relationships along the way. If you love what you do but dread being with those with whom you must do it, then you’re not likely to hang around for the long term. What we have a right to expect from work relationships at a minimum is cooperative professionalism. We also have a right not to expect openly adversarial relationships. If we are very fortunate, though, we will end up with some genuine, meaningful, true friendships along the way.