One of the top complaints that I hear from clients who are frustrated in their current jobs is that they have strained or difficult relationships with colleagues, partners, and bosses at work.
People report that this has a significant negative impact on how they feel about their jobs. And, as I’ve discussed previously, how we feel determines how we show up and do our job. It’s worth spending some time examining what we can do to make our work relationships better. Here’s how.
First Thing’s First
First the bad news: you cannot control what other people think, feel, say, or do.
There is one caveat in the workplace that I should mention: supervisors. If you are a supervisor, you can (and should) set clear expectations, give feedback and make requests. And you can fire someone who does not meet your expectations.
But regardless of your position at work, you still can’t control what goes on in other people’s brains. Sure, you can certainly try to influence what people think about you (for example, by producing your best work product and being polite and friendly). And you can make requests of them. But ultimately they get decide what they’re going to think, feel, say, and do.
That includes thinking whatever they want about you. You could be the sweetest, juiciest peach in the pail, but if someone doesn’t like peaches, they aren’t going to like you.
This is actually very liberating. We waste tons of time and mental energy trying to control what other people think about us, but of course it doesn’t really work. Just think about if you could let other people think what they want about you—and even be wrong about you—while you go about the business of showing up as the person you really want to be and producing your best work.
It frees up mental space for you to think about the only thing that you can really control, which is YOU. The more you can let people be exactly as they are, the more you can focus on feeling good and being productive.
Relationships Are Thoughts
Your relationships with other people—including work relationships—are really just comprised of your thoughts about those people. They, of course, have their own thoughts about you, but that part is really none of your business and is definitely outside of your control.
Here is the really good news about understanding that relationships are thoughts: You get to choose your thoughts about work colleagues, which will determine how you feel about them, which will determine how you show up in your interactions with them.
For example, say you have a colleague who routinely takes credit for your work and delegates the admin tasks to you, while keeping the high-profile projects for himself. Your default thought about him might be “He’s such a jerk.” That thought is likely to create the feeling of anger. When you’re angry, you probably spin in your thoughts about him and what he said or did, even when you’re at home with your kids making dinner. And your result is that you keep repeating his jerky behavior in your head to yourself and you let that thought take much more space in your life than it needs to.
There is also no real benefit to having that thought. Seething with anger is not going to lead to problem-solving. And the more you keep repeating negative thoughts about co-workers, the more your brain will look for evidence that those thoughts are true.
Now imagine having a different thought in response to the exact same circumstance. A better-feeling thought.
Maybe you could decide to think, “He’s a human. He’s doing what humans sometimes do. He gets to be a human.” That thought creates a much more neutral feeling. Maybe one of understanding or even compassion. When you’re feeling neutral, you can then focus on how you want to respond. Do you want to talk to your colleague about it directly? Do you want to set the record straight with your supervisor? From that place, you’re able to access your creativity and problem-solving abilities and you’re able to consciously choose how you want to show up in response. These more neutral thoughts will also allow your brain to look for evidence that your co-worker isn’t such a terrible person. He’s just a flawed human (like the rest of us) trying to find his way.
Set Boundaries When Needed
Just because we get to let people be who they are doesn’t mean that we don’t also take care of ourselves. Setting boundaries is a healthy way to communicate if someone has crossed a line with you that is unacceptable.
You usually don’t need to communicate a boundary until there has been a boundary violation. And you always get to decide what constitutes a boundary violation for you.
For example, you may consider it to be a boundary violation if a colleague yells or tells inappropriate jokes in your presence at work. If that occurs, you set the boundary by making a request and then stating the consequence (what you will do) if they don’t comply with your request. You may say “I’d like you to stop yelling. If you continue to yell, I am going to leave the room.” Alternatively, you can just follow through the consequence right then and there, without further explanation.
There is no need to get upset when establishing a boundary. You can choose to communicate the boundary calmly and clearly. Then, if the other person does not comply with your request, you can calmly follow through with what you said you would do.
It’s good to consider what your boundaries are ahead of time, so that if there is ever a boundary violation, you’ll know it immediately and can set the boundary clearly. Setting boundaries is easier after the first boundary violation, rather than waiting until there is a pattern.
Put It All Together
It’s so much easier to “let” people be who they are, because they’re going to do that anyway. That said, it’s also empowering to clearly define your own limits ahead of time. The combination of letting people be who they are, managing your own thoughts about others, and setting healthy boundaries will allow you to continue to focus on your goals of growing, learning, and thriving at work. Which is what you came here to do in the first place.
Go forth, grow, and bloom.