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How professional relationships work

It’s big chat time again at Sanctus HQ, and I’ve managed to successfully corner Dr. Albert Viljoen, Coaching Practice Lead at Sanctus, for a chin wag about professional relationships. And NOT the romantic kind. Everyday working relationships with colleagues, peers, superiors, and subordinates.

Previous topics we’ve explored include: purpose and meaning in work, the importance of job security, and finding and maintaining motivation. Now without further ado, let’s get into it.

What’s the most important thing to remember in professional relationships?

That a plant dies when you stop watering it. But funnily enough, we often think our relationships – professional or personal – should just keep going, even if we can’t or don’t tend to them for whatever reason.

All of us in work and life tend to assume relationships just happen. And we aren’t really given much education around them. So most people end up only looking at the relationship AFTER it’s broken down.

People end up in couples therapy very shortly before divorce, rather than starting their relationship in that position. And there’s this whole stigma around “if you go to therapy, your relationship is falling apart.” Which is ironic because you could potentially avoid a lot of damage if you looked at the relationship and how you’re showing up in it earlier on. But, whether at work or in our personal lives, that can feel uncomfortable to do, even if we know it’s beneficial.

How important are working relationships?

We see it so often in coaching: most conversations are about relationships, even if people don’t show up talking about it. A coaching session might start with someone saying “I want a promotion”. But when we dig into it, it’s “I want the respect of my peers” or “I find it hard to speak to my boss” or “I don’t like to be micromanaged” which is about relationship dynamics.

So we can trace a great many things back to “how am I relating to others? And how are they relating to me? And how well is that working for both of us?”

What’s the biggest mistake people make in working relationships?

Professional relationships are the channel through which everything flows in an organisation. And yet, we don’t really spend a lot of time on them. When we do, it tends to be some kind of communication workshop focusing on “how do I talk to you?” instead of “how do I feel about you?” and “how are we with each other?”

It’s not about how well you communicate, it’s about whether you meet my needs to feel a sense of trust, and different people might have different things – boxes that need to be ticked – to have that sense of trust in someone else. One person might feel if you’re not consistent with everything you say, then I can’t trust you. Another person feels if you don’t work overtime and pour yourself into your work, then I don’t feel compelled to invest in you. People usually measure the strength of a working relationship by their own standards, which is worth bearing in mind.

What makes professional relationships work?

Specifics. Communicating clearly and using concrete examples. I had a workshop recently where I would ask groups to share with each other how they work together and what they need. And people would say “I need trust.” But when they were asked “what does that mean to you?” they often couldn’t answer. It’s easy for us to point to the thing we think we need, but it’s a bit harder to dig into the details.

It might be “I need someone to show interest in my life in order to know they care for me” or “I need someone to be on time for every meeting to know they’re dedicated” or whatever it is. So if we are not explicit with that, other people don’t know how to build trust with us. And the first thing to do is actually to figure it out for yourself. Which is what coaching helps with. It’s really hard for us to know what we need unless we take the time to reflect and dig under the skin.

How important is trust in a professional relationship?

Trust is important, as much as any other important ingredient that goes into a working relationship. What’s more important is: what does trust mean – to me and to you? And how do we build that bridge? Which means I need to know what I need, you need to know what you need, and then we need to come together.

So firstly, we need to have an honest conversation with ourselves. And then secondly, with each other about those needs. And thirdly, how we negotiate them. Because the other part of this is: you won’t be able to meet those needs all the time. No one can. So we need to be able to communicate what we need, but also, when we fail, how do we repair that?

How do you fix a working relationship?

Usually relationships break down when we’re stressed. When we’re tired, under pressure, potentially feeling burned out. Even with the best of intentions, our communication goes to pot because our frontal lobe switches off.

What I’ve found really helps with couples, is to call a timeout and say “I’m in the red zone right now, this is not going to be a helpful interaction, we have to pause this conversation until I can soothe myself to a place I feel more calm”. But the agreement is to pause it and come back to it. This is research from the Gottman Institute on marriages that last, but it applies to relationships as a whole.

The point is: if we can’t regulate our nervous system, we’ll just act like apes essentially. And I’ll be operating from a really primal state of fight, flight, or freeze. Which is less than ideal in the workplace.

So when stress is up, we need to manage it to stay on top of it. And if things do break down, we need to be able to pause, go away, compose ourselves and come back with a level head later.

How can you communicate your needs clearly in a professional relationship?

Get comfortable with “I” statements. “I feel…” “I need…” “I want…” “I’ve observed…” and be clear about your experience of the working relationship. It can be easy to point AT someone and say “you should do this” rather than “I need this from you.”

As an example, I could say to you “Tom, you need to be better at preparing me before we sit down for an interview”. Or I could say “Tom, I work really well if I have a day or two beforehand to reflect on the questions.”

It feels better because I’m not telling you how to do your job, but you’re now much clearer on my specific need. I don’t need you to do more prep necessarily (although some would be nice). I need time to reflect on the questions. And there’s many ways to meet that need potentially.

What’s the most difficult thing about building and maintaining working relationships?

Relationships seem to have become much more strained during remote and hybrid working. I’m anonymising the client and any information that could identify them but I’ve worked with someone who was onboarded during COVID, and later let go.

There wasn’t any one singular reason that contributed to the decision. But a lot could be traced back to not being able to build proper relationships with people. Because that’s where their strength is, in front of people, in the office. People really like them, they’re approachable, caring, helpful, and really good at their job. But given the physical barrier, on this occasion it didn’t work out. The consequences of which, for good or bad, are life changing.

So I think one thing we need to consider when we talk about professional relationships today, is that making an effort in person is a big deal. And by that I mean: it’s not just a nice to have, it’s essential for people to feel a sense of trust.

People need and often expect to work in trusting environments, where professional support and guidance is balanced with investment in the human aspect of their lives and work. As such, managers are required to lead with a much deeper level of care that goes beyond productivity and problem solving.

Connected Leadership is a personalised 1-2-1 coaching programme designed to develop skills and competencies in people managers at all levels, enabling them to lead with confidence and care and to cultivate high-trust working environments. Environments where belonging, communication, community, and wellbeing are prioritised just as highly as productivity and performance.

Learn more about Connection Leadership here.

And you can read more about trust and how powerful it is in the workplace here.