Develop Good Coworker Relations

Keep it kind or keep it quiet!

Essential Bonds

You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your coworkers. Yet you need these guys in more ways than one.

First, you need their goodwill and cooperation in order to perform your own job well. Second, studies find that disagreements with coworkers and bad interoffice relationships deflate morale and impair performance even more than rumors of layoffs.

You don't have to be a Pollyanna, but try to perform one act of kindness a week, choosing a different coworker each time.
You don’t have to be a Pollyanna, but try to perform one act of kindness a week, choosing a different coworker each time.
And third, if you’re like most people, you spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else. Reaching out to your colleagues — or extending an olive branch, if need be — can make your work environment a much nicer place in which to spend eight (or 10 or 12 or 14) hours a day even as it increases your job security. (In the event of a layoff, chances are the office loner or grouch is among the first to go.)

You don’t have to be friends with your coworkers, but you do need to be friendly. Read on for fresh ways to make work a kinder, gentler place.

1. Give a happy “Hello!” in the morning. Do you plod into the office, eyes down, shoulders slumped, and immediately start work? If so, you’re likely to find that coworkers ignore you (at best) or avoid you (at worst). Get into the habit of smiling and greeting your colleagues as you arrive in the morning or begin your shift. It’s really amazing how fast this little courtesy can thaw chilly workplace relations. Love your coworkers? Get them one of these thoughtful gifts. 

2. Learn the art of small talk. Ask your coworkers about their interests — their favorite music, movies, and books, as well as their hobbies, suggests Larina Kase, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Showing a genuine interest in them will make them feel comfortable around you,” she says. Once you know what floats their boat, clip items from newspapers or magazines to help start conversations. “John, I saw this article about that singer you like,” or, “Mary, you like to knit, don’t you? I found this great new knitting store not too far from here, and thought of you right away.”

3. Join the office bowling or softball team. Many offices have them, and they’re a great way to get some exercise while you get to know your coworkers in an informal setting.

4. Accept good-natured teasing. Other workers sometimes play jokes and tease to test what kind of person you are. So if they poke fun at your new shoes or mischievously put a racy screensaver on your computer, don’t get angry. Let them know that you love a good joke — even if it’s sometimes on you. Of course, if the teasing is personal (about your weight or ethnicity, for example), makes it difficult for you to do your job, or makes you feel uncomfortable because of its sexual implications, you may need to take up the matter with your supervisor.

5. Ask what they think. People love to be asked their opinion, so go out of your way to ask, “What do you think belongs in this report?” or, “How do you think I should handle this situation with client X?” Then give the advice giver a sincere thank-you, even if the ideas are less than helpful.

6. Sidestep the gossip mill. You don’t want anyone talking about you behind your back, right? So return the favor. When a coworker sidles up to you bearing a juicy tidbit of gossip about Betty’s office romance or Bill’s impending firing, respond with, “Really?” and then change the subject or get back to work. If you don’t respond, the gossiper will move on — and you’ll retain the trust and respect of your colleagues.

Be Amicable

7. When dealing with a difficult coworker, pretend your kids are watching. This neat little visualization will help you keep a cool head. After all, you’ve taught your children to be mannerly. With them “watching” you, it will be difficult to stoop to the level of your infuriating colleague.

8. Ladle out the compliments. Did Tom fix the office copier — again? Has the quiet secretary in the cubicle behind you lost 25 pounds? By all means, compliment your coworkers on their achievements — personal or professional. Too often, we focus on what people are doing wrong.

9. Spread your good cheer. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna, but try to perform one act of kindness a week, choosing a different coworker each time. For example, one week you might bring in doughnuts for no reason. Another week, it might be a card for a colleague — maybe a thank-you note for helping you out last week, or a light, humorous card for a colleague who seems down. It can be fun — and rewarding — to see a colleague’s face light up for no other reason than you picked them out of the crowd for a special kindness.

10. Return calls and e-mails promptly. To win friends at work, start with good office etiquette. There’s nothing more frustrating to busy coworkers than to have their emails and phone messages ignored. Your silence doesn’t just make their jobs harder; it also conveys an unpleasant message: You’re unimportant to me.

11. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t withhold credit from deserving coworkers. You’ll alienate them, and they won’t be there for you when you need them (or when they all go out for lunch). Embrace the attitude that we all win together, and let others know when a colleague has done something above and beyond on a project. Also, if someone incorrectly gives you credit and praise, acknowledge the coworker who deserves the accolades.

12. Here’s one for the boss: Always work at least as hard as anyone working with or for you. Make it clear that you would never ask anyone to do a level of work you wouldn’t be willing to take on yourself.

13. Always be on time to show you respect other people’s time.

14. Express your good ideas in a way that makes it clear they are not the only good ideas, but that others may have equally good insights to add.

15. Talk about your life outside the office when it’s appropriate. This will remind the people you work with that you’re a person first, not just an employee or employer.

16. Assume the positive about what you don’t know. Funny how a team of workers always think they’re working harder than those yahoos down the hall, and that the bosses are clueless. Don’t subscribe to that kind of toxic thinking, even if it’s rampant. It’s a negative attitude that makes work become miserable. Instead, assume that everyone else is working hard and doing their best, even if you don’t know what their work is. You should believe both in the work you’re doing and the organization you’re doing it for. If you can’t, perhaps it’s time to move on.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest