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The not-a-minefield of office relationships

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Minefield? Hardly.

The realm of human relationships in the workplace is supposedly just such a place.

But it isn’t. In a minefield you don’t know where the explosive devices are buried. You don’t even know any are buried there until someone steps on one.

In the workplace, though, if you don’t know where every mine is buried by now, you haven’t been paying attention. Just in case:

> Physical contact. A handshake is the limit. If you think your colleague really needs a hug, you might be right. Needing one from you, though, is another matter. Unless you’re absolutely certain a hug from you would be welcome, keep it verbal, not physical.

> Repeated, unwanted attention. It’s a myth that one employee can’t ask another employee out for a date because that might constitute unwanted attention. The fact of the matter is, nobody on the offering side of the equation can know if their attention is wanted until it’s offered. Have you asked and been turned down? Now you know. Don’t ask again.

> Any hint of romantic intentions in a power relationship. Power = compulsion whether intended or not, and it isn’t okay no matter what signals you think you’re receiving.

> Overt sexual attention: Don’t. If you find this surprising, or you disagree, you need more help than KJR can give you.

> Any hint of tribal disparagement. If you sincerely believe a racial, ethnic, political, or religious group has undesirable characteristics, you’re welcome to your belief. You aren’t welcome to express it. The same goes for your thoughts about human genders and what they’re like. You also aren’t allowed to express your thoughts in the form of a joke — no matter how funny you’re sure it is — or to use pejorative identifiers in conversation, or to use “Jew” as a verb.

> Don’t call grown women “girls.” If you’re a guy, it’s demeaning. If you’re a woman, you’re encouraging guys to call them girls.

> Anger mismanagement. We in the workforce are human beings, not robots … at least, not yet. Any of us, in a given circumstance, might find ourselves afflicted with TSD (tantrum spectrum disorder). People who suffer from TSD express their unhappiness on a scale that has rage at one end and annoyance or irritation at the other. Except that if the expression is anywhere beyond irritation it’s the people around us who suffer.

That’s about it. Except that it isn’t, because everything above this paragraph is about what you shouldn’t do. Which is fine and useful if you want to avoid running afoul of Human Resources, which surprisingly enough tends to get these about right in most organizations and circumstances.

But … and this is, if you’ll forgive the expression, a big but … while the above advice keeps you out of trouble and the company out of court, it has nothing to do with career success.

Quite the opposite, if you focus your attention on staying out of trouble you’ll ignore the factor that, more than any other, determines your professional success: how well you manage your interpersonal relationships.

If you’ve read the KJR Manifesto (Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, and if you haven’t … seriously? What’s wrong with you?) … if you’ve read it you understand the two ironclad relationship rules: Relationships Precede Process and Relationships Outlive Transactions. That is, no business process can survive distrust among those responsible for making it work. And very few battles are worth winning if they do serious damage to your working relationship with the people you’re battling with.

I know people who think “being professional” means keeping their personalities in abeyance, sharing nothing of themselves with their teammates, and in general doing their best impression of Commander Spock, only without the hand gesture and “live long and prosper” expression of goodwill.

If this is you … if you think you have to rein it in so far that nobody knows who you are and what you’re really thinking and feeling … it’s time for a re-think. There certainly are times and situations where Spockism is the best choice you have. In particular, when those around you are becoming increasingly excitable, the contrast alone will serve you in good stead.

Also, see TSD, above: If you find yourself sliding beyond irritation to exasperation and beyond, Vulcanizing yourself is just the ticket.

But for day-to-day interactions with your staff, managers, and peers, strong positive relationships are far superior to neutral ones.

So be a person. Not only will it make you more successful, it will make your days more pleasant as well.

Comments (6)

  • I really enjoyed this week’s column.

    But, having been born and bred a geek, how about a future column about resources for a geek to learn how to be a person in the workplace? In my experience, maybe only 25% of us geeks and nerds seem to know how to be a person. My sense is that the rest of us are too shy, too threatened, or too needing of attention to be able to remain consistently interpersonally trustworthy in stressful situations.

    I think the rules you outline create a tremendous framework to be able to be highly competent professional and have a consistently good time doing it. You have learn these rules, but you may need a lifetime of support to obtain and retain the ability to implement them in your professional life. We’re all different, but you might be like Tiger Woods, who crashed and burned when his lifetime support person, his father, died.

    Diversity includes space to find the resources to support our different needs on our way to professional success.

  • Great and timely article Bob. A few others I live by:

    1. Praise in public and criticize in private
    2. When you screw up as a leader (and you will), apologize publicly to those involved.
    3. Take the high road as a leader and report ethical breaches and harassment. Do not stick you head in the sand.
    4. Keep inside baseball inside. In other words, stay out of the rumor business, especially when it has to do with the stuff that Bob wrote about.
    5. Finally something that Bob really drilled into me because he is such a gifted and unique person. Be yourself and establish your culture. People will follow genuine and even quirky leaders that respect them and challenge them. It starts by respecting the talents of each person and allowing them to stretch and make mistakes.

    Good luck and be ready to practice #2. I seem to trip into it each week.

  • Good piece! And probably will fall on deaf ears, or at least be overwhelmed by the voices crying ‘openness’, ‘authenticity’, if not ‘free speech’ [not to mention the number of couples who relate amusing stories of how many times one party had to ask before the other accepted a date] I was also pleased to see this rare nod to HR: “Human Resources, which surprisingly enough tends to get these about right in most organizations and circumstances.”

  • TSD – I’m gonna add that to my personal glossary! Vulcanizing is something I need to learn.

  • Well said, and most of it is just common sense, but some of us are more well-endowed in that area than others!

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