It was Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mockingbird, who wrote “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family – an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”
She might have been writing about a world a long way away from twenty-first century office politics, but the quote stands true, too, for your workplace colleagues. You can’t pick them, you probably won’t even know who they are when you accept a job offer, but you’ll often spend more time with them each week than even your closest family.
And even if Steve from IT drives you mad with his awkward small talk, or what feels like half of the office has formed a close-knit squad with lots of after-work socialising and you’re rarely invited, the navigating office relationships can feel difficult.
Yet your ability to connect with colleagues can be key to career success – so how best to navigate this minefield?
You get out what you put in
The first tip is to get off WhatsApp, Slack and email and into the real world: “like any other relationships, with colleagues, you get out what you put in,” says Paul Russell, co-founder and director of business etiquette training company Luxury Academy London. “With co-workers you need to have a good rapport which can only be developed through time and patience – take the time in your day to chat to colleagues.
“We’re so used to communicating via email or phone that we can neglect this essential foundation work to developing rapport and strong relationships. So ask questions, take a genuine interest in colleagues’ responses – but avoid getting drawn into petty office politics.”
If you’re single-minded about business, perhaps desperate to climb the career ladder fast or putting in a few years at a corporate with a view to starting your own business in the future, it’s easy to see colleagues as rivals.
Improve your social skills
But, advises Jody King, divisional manager at recruitment giant Reed, “the social side of a role is almost as important as the actual job itself – and a great team is a very powerful asset. If people have a better understanding of each other on a personal level, they are likely to work together more effectively and have greater success as a team. This not only benefits the team’s ability to work together, it positively impacts the individual’s well-being.”
Still, given how many hours we spend with colleagues – often in very close, desk proximity – it’s no wonder that some of their habits or comments might drive us mad. However, Russell cites the Queen Mother’s advice that, “If you find someone dull then the fault lies with you,” adding – “everyone has something to offer, but we have to be willing to find out what that is.
Consider what it is about the particular colleague or group of colleagues that you are finding off-putting, and remember that the face others present to the world often masks a multitude of worries, fears and doubts.
“Ask yourself whether you have truly given them ample opportunity to show their good side (and see yours in return), or whether you might be guilty of pre-judging. When all else fails, remain polite and professional and allow trust to gradually build. Some people are very open to new relationships, including working relationships, but some prefer to get to know someone well before they are willing to engage and invest their time.”
For bosses and workers alike, King points out it’s important to remember the long-game in business: “while you don’t have to be friends with your colleagues, or to like everything about them, you have to be able to work together as a team. A toxic environment will quickly spread, leading to team members becoming demotivated, unprofessional and unproductive, which will ultimately have a negative impact on the company.”
Joining the gang
Still, if you’re a newcomer into an established office which has a strong social network, it can feel difficult to break in. Try to build rapport with individual members of the group first, which will make it easier to encounter the group en-masse. “And be open and friendly when you encounter a group, and show willingness to contribute to the conversation,” advises Russell.
“You can give yourself an ‘in’ to their conversation by saying something like: “I couldn’t help overhearing you were talking about Tuscany, I’ve always wanted to visit there.”
Is your boss too bossy?
What about the boss? “I just couldn’t stand my manager” is a major reason cited by staff for quitting their roles, but if you love your job, it’s worth trying to find a way around this. Consider whether there’s anything you can do to change the situation – if your boss never provides helpful feedback, or talks about progression, could you diplomatically ask for some advice?
If they text or email you late into the night with demands, could you politely suggest guidelines for working hours? If going direct doesn’t work, is there a superior manager you could raise concerns with in a constructive way?
Light at the end of the tunnel
If nothing is changes and office relationships are really affecting your mood and life outside of work, it might be time to consider moving on. But on the whole, the workplace can be a fantastic place to meet new people – and you never know when that person sitting at the desk next to you might end up as your future co-founder of the next big thing, or even a romantic partner – or just a really great friend.
Lucy Tobin is a senior writer at the Evening Standard, author and blogger.