I didn’t see it coming. The chair flew over my head as I sat behind the desk and crashed into the large window behind me, shattered the glass and left shards spread over the floor. I also felt momentarily shattered as the adolescent who threw the chair cursed at me, then fled the residential treatment centre.
Within moments, my co-worker and best friend at work, Dushant Persaud, stuck his head in the room, surveyed the scene, smiled at me and said, “Good job Mr. Zinger, you can scratch that one from your to-do list. I’m heading out to buy socks for the boys.”
I laughed as he left the room in search of socks. At the start of each shift, we talked about what we wanted to accomplish that day and one of my goals was to talk with the boy who fled. One of Dushant’s jobs that day was to purchase socks for the boys. As opposed to panic or criticism about the broken window, Dushant normalized the situation with just a few words and brought just the right amount of levity to help me move through a difficult moment.
For five years, Dushant and I worked in a residential juvenile treatment centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba with 14 boys. The job was high stress and low status. I’m convinced it was our close working relationship that helped both of us maintain high levels of engagement while navigating through the daily setback and stress inherent in our work.
I hope you don’t have flying chairs at work but I also hope you have at least one strong relationship or friendship that can keep you engaged as you experience the inevitable setbacks, strains and stress of work.
The link between relationships and engagement
Strong relationships are one of our key resources to navigate the demands of work. Gallup’s Q12 has stirred significant controversy in engagement and survey discussions with the question: Do you have a best friend at work? Some people see the question as creepy and others see it as irrelevant to work. However, the correlation between relationships, engagement and wellbeing is very robust. Gallup reported that 51% of participants who strongly agreed with the statement "I have a best friend at work" were engaged, compared with only 10% of those who disagreed or strongly disagreed.
I’m in the early stages of researching and writing my fifth book, tentatively titled Wisdom at Work: Lessons from 100 People Who Have Been There. I’m interviewing 100 retirees to learn about their stories and perspectives on work and career. I’ve been asking them to tell me what most stands out for them about work. As opposed to tasks and accomplishments, almost every one of them reported it was the close and meaningful relationships with co-workers, clients and bosses.
Build stronger relationships at work
No one should ever compel or command us to have relationships at work, but for work to work well for us, we should consider how well we work at building and maintaining relationships. Here are three ways to strengthen relationships:
- Assess your current number and intensity of close relationships at work. Here are some questions to think about: Can you quickly name 5 to 10 people that you have a very good relationship with? Do you have relationships to turn to after a setback? Are there a variety of people you would enjoy sharing lunch with? Who brings out the best in you?
- Show an interest in others. If you struggled to generate answers to the above questions, don’t wait, initiate. Notice others. Make micro-connections such as head nods and hellos. Listen. Be curious. Recognize others. Appreciate others. Invite others out for lunch, coffee, or a drink after work. Pay attention to acquaintances that may grow into friendships.
- Value relationships. If you’re better at tasks than relationships, consider tricking yourself by focusing on relationships as your primary task. Smile, laugh, and bring a genuine lightness to work. As Victor Borge said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
Forty years after the flying chair, Dushant and I are still friends. Instead of working in a stressful residential treatment centre, now we often go golfing together. Just after I create a huge banana-slice drive off the first tee, I will hear Dushant say, “I have never seen anyone curve the ball quite like that Mr. Zinger.” We laugh, go find the ball, and carry on.
Your work relationships matter
Don’t be a rock or an island at work. A rock may feel no pain but a relationship may enliven, nourish and heal. Ensure work rocks by valuing, initiating, and maintaining real relationships. I bet you’ll feel better and work better.