One afternoon a manager we shall call Kassie sent an email to her colleague, Harrison, explaining why she hadn’t included him in a meeting with a group of company executives earlier that day.
She and Harrison got along well, and she wanted to make sure he wasn’t offended. Two days later the email still hadn’t been returned. This small incident made Kassie question their relationship. Why the sudden rudeness? Was Harrison actually upset? Were they really on “good” terms? How should she act the next time they crossed paths?
Harrison, meanwhile, had “write Kassie back” on his to-do list, but had just been too busy to get around to it. He had no idea that his slow response concerned Kassie.
Interactions with colleagues can often be confusing, not to mention a source of stress. This is a phenomenon that research into work relationships has shown.
After all, how you relate to your co-workers can make or break how you feel about your job. When you identify with them, for instance, you’re much more likely to be happy with your organisation.
However, people tend to think about work relationships in the wrong way. Evolution has wired human beings to appraise situations as either “good” or “bad” so that they can act on threats and opportunities.
Instinctively, we assess our relationships with colleagues in similar “either or” terms. The problem is, there are many types of work relationships – good, bad and everything in between. Research not only confirms this, but shows that individual relationships often include a mixture of both positive and negative aspects.
Most people also see co-worker relationships as being fixed. Good ones will always remain happy, while bad ones will never get better.
Consequently, we take our healthy relationships for granted, instead of giving them the attention and investment they need. Also, we write off those that have soured, instead of taking steps to improve them.
This, too, is misguided, because co-worker relationships are actually fluid. Even the most toxic ones can be repaired, while the most positive can quickly spiral downward.
If you look closely, you’ll see that co-worker relationships are actually made up of a series of “micromoves”, small actions or behaviours that seem inconsequential in the moment but affect how we relate to one another.
Micromoves are like the steps that characterise a dance. You take a step and your co-worker takes a step. Each step, or micromove, can change the direction of the relationship. A small act of gratitude or compassion – such as saying “thank you” when someone holds a door open or being understanding when someone is late for a meeting – can bring people together and help build long-term trust, researchers have suggested.
On the flip side, something as seemingly mundane as Harrison’s delayed response can create tension and negative feelings that may linger a long time.
Micromoves come in a variety of flavours, but according to Kerry Gibson’s research, most either bring people together or pull them apart. Some have a larger impact than others. A disrespectful comment in a team meeting, for instance, will probably have a greater effect than a missed conference call. Yet all micromoves have the potential to shift co-worker relationships.
A few scenarios that represent research findings:
• You have a difficult relationship with a colleague. You learn that her father recently passed away. You make it a point to stop by her desk and offer your condolences. The colleague sees the conversation as an olive branch. Later that week, she offers to help you on a project.
• At lunchtime, you and a couple of colleagues decide to go out to lunch. You debate asking your only other teammate to join, but decide against it because the others invited you.
When you get back to the office, you notice your teammate looks mad. As he leaves for the day, he tells you that he didn’t proofread a report that you need to send first thing in the morning.
• You’re working with a virtual client via a video call. As you talk to her, you casually answer emails and texts, only half-paying attention to what she says.
Later that day, you instant message with your boss, who mentions that the client expressed irritation with your behaviour during the call.
These are just a few examples of how micromoves can affect relationships. The possibilities and outcomes are innumerable. Because relationships are all different, not everyone’s reaction to a micromove will be the same.
For instance, when researchers Kerry Gibson, Dana Harari and Jennifer Carson Marr examined the effect of sharing a weakness with a co-worker, they found that it damaged relationships if the person divulging a vulnerability was of higher status, but not when that person was the co-worker’s peer.
How, then, can you figure out which micromoves will be helpful?
Here are five guiding principles:
1. Understand your co-worker’s view
Impact doesn’t always match intention. What makes micromoves complicated is that we all have different standards for evaluating them. Harrison saw the unanswered email as no big deal, Kassie disagreed.
However, she should have stopped to consider what was going on in Harrison’s life. Might he have just returned from a trip and been confronted with an enormous amount of emails to answer? Was he overwhelmed by another project?
Or take the example of offering condolences to a difficult colleague. That micromove may backfire if your colleague views your action as insincere and perhaps even manipulative. Before you make a micromove, ask yourself how you would react if you were on the receiving end. After the move, gauge your colleague’s response and consider whether it matches your expectations. If it doesn’t, be ready to follow up with additional micromoves.
2. Recognise that micromoves are not always intentional
If things seem to have suddenly gone off track with a co-worker, an unintentional micromove you made may be the culprit. Take the multitasking scenario earlier. Use your client’s reaction as a signal that you need to be more conscious of your own behaviour.
Identifying the cause of a colleague’s reaction can keep a small misunderstanding from becoming something bigger.
That said, it is important to note that an unintentional micromove might not always be to blame. Figuring out whether a co-worker’s unexpected response is something unrelated to you could be as simple as directly saying: “I get the sense something is bothering you. Is it anything I’ve done?”
3. Understand your role in the story
We often get so tied up in our own emotions that we lack a holistic picture of our co-worker relationships or the impact of our own behaviour. If you take an outsider’s perspective, you can gain clarity into the dynamics of your relationships. To get more insight, answer these questions:
• How would an objective outsider narrate the story of your work relationship? What are its merits and challenges?
• How would an outsider describe your role in the situation? Is your behaviour bringing you closer to your colleague or pushing the colleague away?
• What advice would you give someone else in your situation? Are there specific moves you would recommend or advise against?
4. Write down your micromoves
Researchers recommend writing down your micromoves as a tool to enhance your performance. It can help you create deeper and more meaningful relationships. If there’s one relationship you’d like to change, spend some time writing down the various micromoves that you and your co-worker have made in your five or six most recent interactions, including the responses each micromove elicited.
For example, if you stepped forward (for example, by asking a colleague for help), did your colleague step back (saying he didn’t have time) or respond in kind (requesting your assistance with an issue)?
Noting down can help you recognise patterns in your relationships. That can illuminate micromoves that might improve them.
5. Know that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ micromoves aren’t created equal
We might hope that a micromove that brings a co-worker closer would compensate for one that pushes him/her away. Unfortunately, micromoves that harm relationships are both easier to make and more powerful than beneficial ones. In research, Roy Baumeister of University of Queensland and his colleagues noted that the effects of “bad” interactions far outweigh those of “good” interactions.
If you think you’ve made a micromove that may have harmed a relationship, try brainstorming at least six possible micromoves to offset it.
The bottom line is that co-worker relationships have a natural ebb and flow. Every day you have countless opportunities to shape and reshape them. The key is to make micromoves that build the co-worker relationships you want, instead of just settling for the relationships you have.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.