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How professional relationships work

Relationships are murky. And one of our biggest blindspots. Not just at work, but in general.

A mostly unspoken social contract, there might be one or two unbreakable terms and conditions, but it’s usually a case of existing alongside another person in the least annoying way possible – and the vast majority of that takes place in an enormous grey area.

Relationships at work often come built-in with roles, boundaries, targets and expectations. This can promote greater clarity, which makes communication more straightforward. The danger is: while this seems like the black and white bit, this is where you’ll find the majority of the grey – from roles and boundaries not being enforced properly or changing over time, to maybe even being forgotten about altogether.

It’s hard to comprehend certain relationships. Even just looking at the mechanics of a relatively uncomplicated one might feel like an uncomfortable thing to do. It takes skill to work out what a relationship needs. And as humans, not that we’re necessarily averse to skill and empathy and being considerate of others, we’re just more prone to our own biases, making assumptions about people, and siding with ourselves. Which, understandably, can create barriers and blindspots in our working relationships.

I’ve managed to successfully corner Dr. Albert Viljoen, Coaching Practice Lead at Sanctus, for a chat about what makes professional relationships work, what you can do when one breaks down, and how important they are in the grand scheme of running a business.

How important are professional relationships?

AV: 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 number one thing people need to remember about professional relationships?

AV: 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.

What’s the biggest mistake people make with their professional relationships?

AV: 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 a professional relationship work well?

AV: 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?

AV: 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?

AV: 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 the workplace?

AV: 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 hardest thing about building and maintaining relationships at work?

AV: 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.

Where coaching comes in

Sanctus Coaches commit to an agreement with the people they coach, a contract of sorts which defines the working relationship they’re about to embark on: what can happen in a session, what the Coach will bring to the table, and what the person they’re coaching can expect to get out of it.

This creates clear roles and parameters, which foster a sense of trust and psychological safety. While physical contracts exist in the workplace, we don’t always do the work on our everyday working relationships. Typically, we just start working together, hope it works out, and get annoyed when it doesn’t.

We can all be more conscious of our relationships. We can all behave more intentionally within them. And we can add structure and processes in the workplace to support this.

But for any of that to be effective, we must be clear with what we need and expect from the people we work with. And we need to conquer our fear of examining our relationships and talking with people about them.

If that sounds daunting to start with, here are some simple questions you can answer yourself in order to reflect on the relationships in your life:

“Which relationships do you find challenging?”

“What do you wish was different about them?”

“What would you want to say to someone if there weren’t any consequences?”

Coaching helps you get in touch with yourself, which has a massive impact on how you relate to and interact with others.

Checking in

From experience, most managers don’t check in with their teams effectively. Well, most businesses don’t, but I’d argue it’s incumbent upon managers to be change agents. My gut tells me it’s just much easier (and safer) talking about things like metrics and performance over relational dynamics and what’s really going on with a person.

Something that can help with this even in a small way, is seeing the value of “check ins” and being intentional with them. It doesn’t have to be a big deal and take ages. You probably start most of your meetings – whether online or in person – with a bit of small talk anyway. This is just a slightly more deliberate and open way of doing it.

What we do at Sanctus is ask the team to share one word to describe how they’re feeling in that moment: “hangry”, “excited”, “tired”, “anxious”. You could ask your team how their energy levels are on a scale of 1-5. Or get people to pick an image from a Buzzfeed-style “Which Keanu Reeves are you today?” quiz.

Not only does this allow employees to bring an authentic part of themselves to work, it frames the meeting so that people can take into consideration how individuals may be feeling that day. And most importantly, it goes a long way towards normalising and building trust and psychological safety into the business.


This was a pandemic trend a fair few businesses entertained and saw value in. Given the shifts most organisations have undergone recently, one simple and effective way to strengthen the bonds between teams again is by re-onboarding everyone.

It levels the playing field, whether you’re a new face at the business or part of the furniture. It offers everyone the opportunity to reconnect to the vision, to one another, and to align their day-to-day responsibilities with the heart and mission of the organisation.

One case study we reference in The Great Workplace Shakeup (our guide to redesigning employee experience for the better) features a business organising two days of round robin interviews to get people together to meet for the first time (again). Everyone was asked to prepare responses to these five prompts:

  1. The most significant thing that’s changed about me is…
  2. The thing I’m most concerned about is…
  3. I’m most excited about this team’s ability to…
  4. The help I need to be successful on this team is…
  5. The contribution I feel I can make to your success is…

This might not seem business critical, but it’s important. One 15 year study showed how strong cross functional team relationships were six times more likely to produce trustworthy behaviour.

People, teams, and businesses need trust and psychological safety to work at their best. And just like trust and psychological safety can’t be bought in personal relationships, they can’t be bought in professional ones either.

Building behaviours into your day to day that promote trust, compassion, and psychological safety is the best way to foster a culture of care. We have to walk the talk for people to gift us their trust – both inside and outside the workplace.

How Sanctus helps

People need and often expect to work in trusting environments, where professional support and guidance is balanced with a healthy level of investment in the human aspect of their lives and work. Which is why modern managers are required to lead with a deeper level of care than they may be used to, in a way that goes beyond mere 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.

Sanctus Coaching gives employees at all levels a space away from the business to process challenging issues in their relationships at work and at home, to reflect and gain greater perspective on their situation, and come up with holistic ways to improve their lives. To continue reading on how we feel about company culture and talent, check out this page.