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Reinvigorate your relationships at work

Recently I sat down with our Coaching Practice Lead Dr. Albert Viljoen for a chat about professional relationships. What makes them work? What can you do when one breaks down? And how important are they in the grand scheme of running a business? You can read the full conversation here.

One of our biggest blindspots, relationships. Not just at work, but in life as well.

I think the main thing I’ve realised is we need to do away with the idea that relationships should just work. That goes for all of them. Professional, personal, romantic. Long term, short term, permanent.

Especially in the workplace, it’s rare we step outside of ourselves and our interactions with others and ask: “Is this relationship working?”

And not just is, but how?

Relationships are murky and weird when you think about them. A mostly unspoken social contract – there might be one or two unbreakable terms and conditions but it’s usually a case of existing together in the least annoying way possible, and the vast majority of that takes place in an enormous grey area.

It’s hard to fully understand certain relationships – just looking at the mechanics of a relatively uncomplicated one might feel uncomfortable. It takes skill to work out what a relationship is and what it 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.

Left on read

I get the feeling it’s extra challenging tending to any kind of relationship at the moment. I’ve personally found I’ve become increasingly bad over the last few years at keeping in touch with anyone. Even just replying to text messages. Friends, family, colleagues past and present.

Maybe it’s my social circles but the amount of people who’ve told me recently “omg I don’t text ANYONE back” makes me feel it’s not just me.

I know it’s not hard. It’ll take thirty seconds.

I’m just not there. Mentally. I don’t, can’t really think about it.

I’m not sure if it’s the long term effects of Covid messing with my perception and concept of time. Whether it’s cognitive load, and we’re all just burned out trying to balance a career with family/personal/social life. Maybe we’re all having a collective existential crisis because virtually every recent world event seems relentlessly draining.

Maybe it’s because work used to be a thing we went to, socialised at, and then left at the end of the day. And now, for many, it’s a digital world we never truly leave that lives in our computers, in our homes.

This blurring of lines is well documented. But in a way, the distinction between personal and professional relationships has never been clearer.

For one, if my boss is angry at me, and my best friend is angry at me, I know one feels more painful than the other. While both are admittedly rubbish situations, proximity and sensitivity are important factors here.

The other thing is that work relationships 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 a lot of the grey areas – from these not being enforced properly or changing over time, maybe even outright forgotten about.

Checking in

From experience, most managers don’t check in with their teams effectively. Well, most businesses don’t in general, 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 them what 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 kind of thing 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.

Where coaching comes in

Sanctus Coaches commit to an agreement – a contract of sorts – with the people they coach, 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, I asked Albert for 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?”

Sanctus Coaching gives employees at all levels a space away from the business to process challenging issues and relationships at work and at home, reflect and gain greater perspective on their situation, and come up with holistic ways to make things better for everyone involved.

At the end of the day, coaching helps you get in touch with yourself, which has a massive impact on how you relate to and interact with others.