Building Workplace Relationships in a Difficult Environment

Tanya writes in:

I started a new job on June 1. I work in an office setting with 20-25 other people. In the year or so before I started, there was a big “conflict” where a poisonous former employee kind of dismantled the office culture and got everyone to split into factions and many of the people in the office wound up not on speaking terms. While it’s not that bad any more, the office is still a pretty frigid place. No one really talks to anyone outside of work requirements and most people seem to be either just doing their job, browsing websites, or counting the minutes until they can leave. Most people eat lunch at their desks and occasionally they eat out in pairs and that’s it. On the first day several people said hello to me but since then almost no one has spoken to me aside from work tasks.

I want to break through this and start building some good professional relationships but I don’t know where to start. Most conversations don’t seem to go anywhere, like people are afraid other people will overhear as our office is an open floor plan. It’s really weird and most of the advice I’ve seen doesn’t give any insight as to how to handle this. Thoughts? I like the way you handle things.

So, first of all, I believe that good strong positive relationships with at least some of your coworkers is a very valuable thing. Having those relationships makes the workday more pleasant, gives you someone who you feel comfortable solving problems with, and also gives you someone who can potentially help you at a later stage in your career. It is well worth the time to build these kinds of relationships because they will pay off in terms of stabilizing your current job, potentially helping you line up for raises and promotions, and supporting your career later on.

I’ve been in wonderful open office environments where everyone gets along well, and I’ve also been in “cold” environments like the one Tanya is describing here. In both cases, I’ve managed to build relationships with coworkers, some so strong that they persist more than a decade after I switched jobs and career paths.

Here are ten strategies I would use if I were in Tanya’s position, in an office environment with very little camaraderie.

Make Cookies

This is a great initial strategy that you can do any time that almost always works well. Just make a big batch of homemade cookies and bring them into work and offer them to everyone. “I made this batch of cookies to share. Do you want one?” Keep the recipe simple – just straight up chocolate chip – so that they’ll appeal to the maximum number of people. Here’s a great simple chocolate chip cookie recipe.

This is a strategy that a friend of mine that I’ll call Jane uses to incredible effectiveness. Whenever she goes to a meeting, she brings a box of her cookies with her half the time. She brings them to her workplace. She brings them to dinner parties.

Why? She directly told me once: “Cookies are conversation starters.” They get people to let down their guard just a little bit and start communicating. Almost everyone can eat a cookie without any allergen issues, so that’s usually not a worry, and a small cookie is tasty and isn’t going to nuke anyone’s diet. Then, there’s something about munching on a cookie that just opens people up for conversation like nothing else.

Just make a big batch of cookies, enough for everyone in your office to have a couple, and take them to work the next day. Just say loudly to everyone that you made a big batch of cookies to share and walk around sharing them with people. While you might not get instant conversation, what you’re likely to get is a bit of warming towards you, and that will make many of the other strategies listed here.

Don’t want to make cookies? Find something else you’re comfortable making that’s easy to share. At my last office workplace, one new person brought in a slow cooker full of rømmegrøt (a Norwegian pudding that tastes like a liquid cinnamon roll if you put a bit of cinnamon on it) and everything needed to eat it. She set things up and invited everyone to come and try some. There are few things in the world that are a better icebreaker than food.

Identify “Linchpin” People

Spend some time watching and observing your coworkers and figure out who among them seems to have the most positive interactions with others. Is there anyone in your office who seems to get a bit more of a response than others from conversations? Is there anyone who more consistently eats out with others, and eats with different people in pairs (as Tanya describes)?

Look for at least one person that matches this description, and ideally find a few that do.

This requires time and observation. You’re going to need to watch and listen for at least a few days to figure out who’s who in your workplace.

The people you are looking for are the linchpins in what remains of the professional network in your workplace. They’re the ones that have good relationships with at least a handful of others at work and, although the workplace might not be all that it could be, these are the people that go beyond simply sitting at their desk all day and seem to have at least some connection to others.

These are the people you start with.

Invite a ‘Linchpin’ to Lunch

Once you’ve identified a few “linchpins” that others seem to hold in positive regard, invite one of them to lunch. Just be honest – say you’re trying to understand the dynamics of what’s happening in the office and you’ve seen that this person seems to have a good connection with a lot of people and that this person will probably have some insights.

Pick up the tab for that lunch. While there, get that person’s take on what’s going on in the office. Who are the people that are helpful and collaborative? Who are the people who aren’t?

Then, do the same for everyone you identify as a “linchpin.”

What you’ll eventually learn is that there will be a subset of people who are consistently defined as good collaborators and good people, and a (likely) smaller subset of people who are consistently defined as bad collaborators and bad actors.

In general, it’s a good idea to actively start building relationships with those people who are being collectively identified as good collaborators and good people.

The problem with a “cold” office like Tanya describes is that it’s very hard to pick up on cues at work to identify who’s who. That’s why identifying the people who are strong social connectors and then blatantly asking them for help can be really useful. In a normal workplace, you can usually figure out for yourself over time who the good and bad actors are, but in a cold office, you may need help.

Talk to Your Supervisor about Collaborative Work

While the “linchpins” – the good social connectors – are great people to know and have positive relationships with, you’re also going to want to have a reason to work closely with the people who are good collaborators and all-around good people.

The way to do that is to jump into projects with them, if at all possible. If you can, identify what projects those people are working on and, when there’s an opportunity, get involved with some of those projects so that you have more opportunity to work with good collaborators.

Pay attention in meetings and other forms of workplace communication. Look for projects or other opportunities that give you a chance to work with the good collaborators, and then jump on those projects and opportunities. Don’t be afraid to directly talk to your supervisor about them, either.

I’ll give you a personal example of this. Over time, I learned that one particular person that I used to work with – we’ll call him Trevor – was a really good team player and almost always helped projects to succeed by identifying what needed to be done and who could do it. Even when he wasn’t a project lead, he was kind of a natural leader and many issues just went straight through him.

I made an effort to get involved in a project with this person so that we would have to work together. We clicked – he helped me and I helped him more times than I can count. A decade after I left that job, I still talk to Trevor.

Engineer ‘Grassroots’ Fun, Not Organized Fun

Many offices that are “cold” will have “fun” activities that try to bond people together that often fall flat because they feel forced. That doesn’t mean that the idea of having a shared fun activity isn’t a good one – it is – but that the execution is bad.

The fun activities that really work well are the ones that come from the people themselves, not from management.

I’ve seen several things that work well in office environments, but one of the best things I’ve ever seen is a fantasy football league. I’ve seen a fantasy football league, organized by one of the people in the office, make a huge difference in terms of bonding people in that office on multiple different occasions.

It’s pretty easy – just suggest to the people in your office that you’re looking for some people for a fantasy football league and it’d be nice to actually have some players in the office so that they can negotiate trades directly when needed. Managing a league using the tools at ESPN or Yahoo is easy; the software does pretty much all the work for you. This gives you a strong communication channel with others in your office without being a direct demand on their time or attention.

Another way to do this is to ask for some kind of collaborative help that’s really easy for other people to pull off. Maybe you’re trying to make a collage and need some old magazines – just ask coworkers if they can bring in some old ones. Maybe you’re making a t-shirt quilt and want some old t-shirts – again, just ask coworkers to bring some in. The purpose of this isn’t so much the stuff you collect, but in the collaboration and connection that comes when they do.

Take Advantage of What You’ve Got

These efforts are going to build to situations where you’re engaged in meaningful conversation with a coworker. When that happens, use every conversational tactic in the book to make that conversation into a positive.

I have something of a checklist that I’ve been working with my kids on in order to help them be better at conversations, so that you both get value out of it and both end up in a more positive place. Here are some of the highlights.

Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next, and instead listen to what they’re saying and respond to that. Quite often, in conversations, people spend the time when other people are talking simply formulating what they’re going to say next. Rather than doing that, listen to what the other person is saying and respond accordingly.

Ask questions, and mostly only offer statements when asked. This is such an effective conversation tactic when you’re uncertain. Just ask questions, listen to the answers carefully, and ask good follow-up questions. In general, the only time I offer up statements in conversations where I’m not surrounded by good friends is when I’m trying to articulate a conclusion or I’m answering a question that I’m asked.

Have a reason to follow up. The best conversations leave some sort of trail that you can follow up on, whether with more information or some other form of support or simply a check-in on how something is going. The key is to remember to follow up. I usually make a note of many conversations reminding myself to do just that, and it’s through that pattern of following up that relationships are built.

Listen. That’s the key. Listen. Don’t fill things up with your words. Listen. Pay attention. This is the core.

Avoid Negative Gossip Like the Plague

If you encounter anyone saying negative things behind another person’s back, avoid it like the plague. If you’re in a conversation, don’t agree with what’s being said and instead wait for the conversation topic to change or change it yourself. If you’re nudged into offering input, just say something neutral, like you haven’t really seen that behavior or that it’s not a big deal, and move on.

Quite often, the negative talk you do about someone behind their back gets back to them and will poison any relationship you might have with them. Furthermore, some bystanders will begin to see you as a negative person and someone who shouldn’t be fully trusted.

Yes, some negative gossipers manage to build circles of similarly negative people around them. Those groups are almost always disastrous in the workplace, and if you find such a cabal, it’s probably a good idea to move on to a new job as discreetly and quietly as you can.

How does this come up in a “cold” office? It’s likely that when you meet with some of the “linchpins,” you’ll hear some negative gossip about people. Don’t assume it to be true. Instead, just don’t participate and seek out others to build relationships with.

Be Appreciative of Help

Through the above methods, you’ll probably come into some situations where someone helped you with something at work, whether it’s direct help with a work task, really good advice about something, or help with something outside of work (like bringing in something for a personal project at your request).

Be appreciative of that help. For me, nothing quite beats a handwritten thank you note and a small gift, like a bundle of cookies in cellophane or something like that.

Go to the store and buy a bunch of blank thank you notes. Look for situations where someone really helped you out, with advice or with collaborative work or with helping with a personal project, and write that thank you note. Including a little gift with that note – something small, but something clearly tied to their interests (and probably consumable) – is always a good idea.

The format is simple. Just write their name – “Dear Jeff,” – followed by a direct thanks for what they did – “Thank you for giving me such useful advice last month.” – and how that thing really helped you – “It helped me figure out what steps I need to make in my career.” – and a final appreciation – “I really appreciate it!” – and a signature – “Yours truly, Trent”. That’s all you need to do, just do it in your own handwriting.

Devote Some of Your Day to Building Relationships

Over time, you will start building relationships with people. One good way to keep building those relationships over time is to maintain regular direct one-on-one contact with people. Don’t just broadcast to the room, but connect with people individually.

There are lots of different ways to do this. One great way is to connect on social media by following them on Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, then following up on some of their content with a “like” or a comment or an answer to a question they’re posing. If they don’t use social media, shoot them an email once in a while sharing something you thought they might find interesting or just checking up on how they’re doing. Stop by their desk when there’s a good opportunity just to check in on them. A regular one-on-one lunch or small group lunch is a good idea, whether it’s a lunch outside of the office or you just go off somewhere to brown bag together somewhere nearby.

Put aside some time each day to do these kinds of things. Keep those relationships alive and nurture them a little. It’s like watering a garden. It doesn’t take a whole lot out of you, but it’s essential for keeping those things alive and growing.

Produce Good Work

This is the foundation of everything else I’ve written in this article. Produce good work and a lot of these things will be much easier. If you produce good work, people will recognize it. If you’re reliable and get things done when you say you will, people will recognize it.

You’ll build a positive professional reputation in the office, which is far better than a negative reputation formed from not getting things done.

Don’t pass the buck. Do what you’re expected to do, and if you need help, give some help, too. If you fall into a pattern of handing your work off to others, resentment will build and your office will be colder than ever.

What if you’re struggling mightily with something? Ask for help. You are far better off asking for genuine help with a problem you’re having than to just push it off or not finish it. Make it clear that you don’t want someone to do it for you, but instead help you get to the point where you can do it yourself.

Produce good work, and be a good collaborator. You’ll never, ever go wrong with that.

Final Thoughts

It takes time for these things to work. It won’t happen overnight or even in a month or two. Thawing a cold office takes time.

Having said that, thawing a cold office is something that is really beneficial for everyone – not just you, but literally every person in that office. The ability to build good workplace relationships that you can rely on when work needs to be done or life intervenes is a incredibly valuable thing for anyone to have. These tactics will help get that process started, but don’t expect magic results overnight. You’ve got to give it time.

Good luck!

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