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The little gestures that can heal big rifts at work

Many believe work relationships once established remain same—good, bad or indifferent. They can change, with communication

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Sameer Guha keeps his social media accounts free from work connections. But after ignoring friend requests from few colleagues, he realized some of them had taken offence at his dismissal. “I sent out messages explaining my preference after a senior colleague got upset and was passively hostile," says Guha, who works as general counsel (India and the Indian subcontinent) for Mars, a global FMCG company.

A seemingly inconsequential action like this can adversely affect a work relationship. Work relationships, be it any kind, are complex and consist of a series of micro-moves, or small gestures that shape the relationship. A kind word, a note of encouragement, a smile every morning or asking how a colleague is doing, are all small but meaningful actions that add up to creating a positive relationship and work environment. We may lay the foundations for a hostile relationship unintentionally by forgetting to include a co-worker in a group lunch or talking over a colleague in a meeting. We may even cause a good relationship to deteriorate by taking it for granted.

What really matters

Most people believe that relationships once established will remain the same—good, bad or indifferent. But they can change, depending on which way you move. Chandrasekhar Sripada, professor (organizational behaviour and strategic human capital), at International School of Business in Hyderabad, elaborates on some common mistakes at work that impact relationships. They are tardiness, withholding information and being intrusive, like asking personal questions before establishing a bond with a colleague. The solution is both simple and complex—communication. “Broach the topic and explain your actions. Don’t be silent. Offer clarification voluntarily," he suggests.

When Guha realized he had caused offence by not accepting social media connect requests, he tried to rectify the situation by communicating his rationale.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Little Things that Affect our Work Relationships", by management professors, Kerry Roberts Gibson and Beth Schinoff, showcases their research on work relationships. Most people believe that once a relationship is bad, it will remain the same. Schinoff and Gibson, however, observe that this is not necessarily true.

For those who have made the effort to correct things, it is frank communication and consistent effort that has improved a negative relationship. Smriti Khandelwal, marketing director at a hospitality firm, has a strong preference for analytically derived decisions. “Finding answers to the ‘why’ to most numeric trends is important to me. However, my repeated questioning has often been perceived by colleagues as challenging their competency and this led to misunderstandings," she says. As long as ego does not get in the way, she believes it is easy to go up to the person and explain.

Professor Sripada agrees: “The onus of improving a relationship is on you. One should have the clarity and openness to discuss the topic. Don’t respond to meanness, see the larger picture. If someone is trying to make amends, be open, gracious and responsive."

Gibson and Schinoff’s research shows that one positive micro-move does not offset the damage of a negative micro-move. It takes time and consistent positive gestures to rebuild the trust. “The larger picture is understanding the importance of investing in relationships. We need to develop ‘micro-sensing’, a degree of empathy where we can sense a person’s reaction through verbal or non-verbal behaviour," says Sripada. “You need to genuinely want to improve a relationship, otherwise even positive micro-moves will appear to be driven by an ulterior motive."

Amrita Batliwala, who works for a media company, values unexpected but meaningful gestures. “A colleague from Pune remembered a conversation we had about Kayani Bakery and later, got me stuff from there on one of his visits," she recalls. “When my dad was unwell, everyone was so helpful. They all took on certain responsibilities to help out."

Guha recalls little things that have stuck with him, like colleagues keeping his dietary restrictions in mind when choosing eateries for team outings, or those who went out of their way to engage with his close ones when they visited the office.

Looking out people in support roles, and not just teammates, goes a long way. Anupama Mehra, head of a leading school in Delhi, accepts all social invitations for weddings or celebrations whether it is from the security guard or a teacher. “This has brought me closer to my team. It is a fantastic ice breaker, allowing me to interact with them frequently and comfortably."

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