by Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP
In general, we spend more time at work with our co-workers than we do with our own families or personal support networks during the week. So, if you don’t have strong, healthy relationships at your place of employment, work can be stressful and lead to a dissatisfying professional experience. You chose social work for a reason, and you should not only be satisfied with the impact you are having on the lives of your clients, but also have healthy day-to-day relationships with your co-workers to make your work worthwhile.
What is a healthy work relationship?
There are several characteristics that make up good, healthy relationships with anyone. We worked so hard in school learning how to develop good relationships with clients, but sometimes we forget how to manage healthy relationships with our professional colleagues. Just because we work toward the same professional mission or goal doesn’t mean we can assume we are all on the same page. We all have different personalities and work styles that need to be validated.
Developing strong work relationships takes time, commitment, and practice. The website MindTools.com has a great list of characteristics that define a good work relationship:
Trust. When you trust your colleagues, you form a bond that helps you work and communicate more effectively. You can build trust with your co-workers by following through with your promises and being consistent. Recognize that what you do in your job may have an effect on the work of others. Letting things slip through the cracks may have the unintended consequence of losing the trust of your team.
Respect. When you respect the people you work with, you value their input and ideas, and they value yours. Clearly defined expectations and boundaries help create a culture of respect and hold everyone accountable. Being proactive, practicing humility, and admitting when you have made an error will help build respectful relationships with your colleagues.
Mindfulness. A good clinician has the capacity to practice self-awareness, which is having a clear understanding of your personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, motivation, and emotions. Practicing mindfulness can allow you to understand your co-workers, how they perceive you, your attitude, and your responses to them in the moment. Take responsibility for your words and actions, so your own negative emotions don’t impact the people around you.
Open Communication. The more effectively you communicate with those around you, the richer your relationships will be. A culture of open, honest communication in which employees are encouraged to share their ideas and concerns gives employees the sense that they are valued.
If you work for an organization that embraces and fosters these characteristics in the work environment, you can expect long-term satisfaction.
Who we work with and what their role is should be obvious, right?
Understanding different types of work relationships can help you determine the role your existing relationships play and which ones you might need to work on. Let’s define a few of the more important relationships you are likely to have.
Boss/Supervisor. In general, you will be reporting to someone at your organization. This person will manage your work and is ultimately responsible if you do well or poorly in your position. Bosses come in all supervisory styles: mentors, leaders, micromanagers, power-hungry, the “never around” boss. The key is to identify your supervisor’s leadership and communication style. Communicate in the way they want you to, demonstrate initiative, do great work, and you should be able to work effectively with your manager.
Colleague. These are usually external partners you will encounter to help solve a client issue, advocate for an issue, or maybe serve on an interdisciplinary team. You aren’t employed by the same organization, but you work together toward the same goal.
Team Member. There are fellow employees with whom you work on a regular basis to get your work and projects done. Good relationships with your team members are critical and will allow you to accomplish more.
Friend. This is someone you get along with, confide in, and enjoy in your work space. They fill a social need at your place of employment.
Professional vs. personal friendships: A fine line between an asset and a liability
Is it possible to have friends at work? Sure! Social work is an amazing, rewarding profession. However, burnout can happen quickly for a variety of reasons, especially if you have no collegial support at your place of employment. This is where healthy work friendships can be a huge asset and help keep you sane on the job.
It is possible to have two types of friendships at work: a professional friendship and a personal friendship. In professional friendships, you are close to your co-workers without knowing everything about their family and personal lives. A personal friendship is with someone you know more intimately, and you see each other often outside of work.
Professional friendships can be an asset at work. Work is more enjoyable and satisfying if you enjoy the people you work with and can turn to them for appropriate, professional advice. Professional friends can be a valuable part of any professional network and can potentially boost your career. Personal wellness is very much about taking care of yourself and enjoying all parts of your life. Professional friends can help you achieve the goal of overall wellness and satisfaction in your career, because you enjoy their company and value their expertise.
Personal friendships can be a liability at work. Friendships don’t always last forever. Working closely with someone you no longer get along with can be awkward and hinder your performance. What if your friend gets a promotion and you don’t? If you started at the same level but something has changed between you professionally, this can have an impact on your personal relationship and maybe even your work performance. What if you have a disagreement over a case or how a client situation was handled? Not being able to have a professional discussion or disagreement because there are too many personal feelings can cost you your friendship and possibly your job.
Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts to help you be mindful about appropriate office friendships:
- Manage your boundaries. Social workers Elizabeth J. Clark and Elizabeth F. Hoffler, in their book 100 Ways to Start Smart and Get Ahead in Your Career, say, “Draw a line with personal and professional. That line is an invisible, but important, step to advocating for yourself by not revealing too much information.” I couldn’t agree more.
- Beware of neediness. Does your office buddy need to come and tell you about a personal problem on a daily basis? If you feel as if you are providing free therapy to your co-workers, it is time to reassess your office “friendship.”
- Stand out from the crowd. Don’t let your contributions to the organization become overshadowed by your personal work relationships. Don’t fall prey to groupthink by following along with team decisions you don’t agree with just because you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings.
- Keep work and play separate. Sometimes life happens. You may already work with your best friend or develop deep, personal friendships with co-workers over the years. That is okay! Just make sure to keep your professional boundaries during the work day.
- Stay focused. Don’t let your friendship derail you from being a good worker or your boss might start to notice, and not in a good way.
- Don’t be taken advantage of. When a co-worker befriends you and starts asking you for favors, such as covering for them when they are running late or helping get their paperwork done, this is a major red flag. Protect yourself by politely declining these requests, telling them you aren’t comfortable in doing so.
- Don’t use others. Don’t initiate office friendships as a way to “get ahead.” Using your colleagues to advance your career will certainly destroy any credibility you had as a trustworthy co-worker. Pulling your weight, getting things done, and making your own opportunities are the ways to get where you need to go in your career.
- Don’t gossip. Being known as the office gossip likely means management will never consider you for a promotion. In fact, the office gossip could be seen as a liability to office morale. Don’t take any part in being the reason your office is dysfunctional.
- Don’t complain. Criticizing your boss in front of co-workers is not appropriate and may get you fired. Save venting for your personal network. If you truly have a conflict with a co-worker or supervisor, use the appropriate channels to address the issue.
- Don’t exclude others. If you become besties with someone in your office, others may feel left out. Don’t flaunt your friendship and make others feel uncomfortable. This can alienate you from your entire office.
- Don’t become friends with your boss or someone you supervise. Friends are equals. Bosses and direct reports are not peers inside the organization, and having a personal friendship is just not a good idea. Don’t give others in the organization fuel to accuse you of favoritism.
My general advice is to be careful who you let into your personal circle. Unfortunately, even though we are all adults, sometimes co-workers can be unkind and unprofessional. Don’t feed into workplace negativity. If there is a conflict that is truly a disruption to your work and the organization, bring it up to your supervisor. If it is your supervisor who is the problem, consider the appropriate steps if you need to go to a higher level. If you see a pattern of problematic behavior within the organization, it is time to step up your networking, dust off that résumé, and see what else is out there for you. Life is too short to work in a position or organization that does not bring you a sense of professional fulfillment.
Clark, E., & Hoffler, E. (2015). 100 ways to start smart and get ahead in your career. S2C2 Publishing.
HumorThatWorks.com. (2016). 7 types of work relationship. [Online]. Available from: http://www.humorthatworks.com/learning/7-types-of-work-relationships/ [Accessed: May 28, 2016].
MindTools.com. (2016). Building good work relationships. [Online]. Available from: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/good-relationships.htm [Accessed: May 15, 2016].
Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC.