Get to know the people you work with
For better or worse, most adults spend a lot of time at work (research says about 90,000 hours over the course of a lifetime—3,750 days!). This often means that we spend more time with our coworkers that we do with our own families. One of the things that has been hard for me is finding the time to truly and meaningfully get to know the people with whom I work. I have also learned that when I make the time to build meaningful connections with my colleagues, I am happier, more grounded, and sometimes even more productive. We commonly forget that our coworkers have lives and realities outside of the office. We collaborate on projects, coordinate tasks, and get to know each other on the surface. We smile at each other on the way to the printer, ask about each other’s partners or babies, and vent in the kitchen (elevator, breakroom, or copy room) about how stressed we are and how much is going on. And in the bustle and busyness, we miss the opportunity to authentically get to know and support each other. Getting to know the people we work with takes time and energy that we don’t always feel that we have, but as we learn more about others both within and beyond the context of work, our perspectives expand, our empathetic responses grow, and our feelings of belonging increase. Whether or not it’s fair, I find that I am more patient and understanding with the people to whom I feel more connected, with the coworkers who know me beyond my “work intensity” and who support me as a person. When I know more about a person’s tendencies, successes, or sufferings, it forces me to adjust my communication strategies and to more consciously consider how my actions will affect others’ effectiveness and overall lives. When I force myself to go on walks with people in other departments for even just ten minutes, I acquire new knowledge that strengthens my work and often triggers new, more innovative ideas. When I take the time to genuinely ask and listen to stories about people’s lives, they become more human and less “the person who just sent an infuriating email.”
Last year, I invited one of my coworkers to a culminating event for a program I was running. This was a person I had to collaborate with but from whom I was traditionally pretty removed. Our conversations were short and as-needed, and we frequently disagreed during team meetings. I suspected that he did not really like or respect me, and therefore made little to no effort to get to know him or interact with him more than necessary. But I invited him to this event, he came, and it changed everything. For two hours, he saw, and perhaps more importantly felt, the result of a year of my work. Afterward, he told me it was one of the most powerful experiences he has had working at our agency, applauded my dedication, and pledged to support in any way he could. Since then, he has been one of my fiercest supporters on the inside and has become an ally on other projects. While this is not the same kind of “getting to know each other” as going out for drinks after work or being aware of our outside-of-work lives, the experience taught me the importance of sharing experiences and inviting people in. Even if we are not working together directly, we owe it to each other to at least begin to understand what role we’re each playing in the organization’s larger mission. While I am very much still working on it, I have learned that authentic collaboration and connection makes us stronger as professionals and people, even as it takes time, energy, and vulnerability.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have discovered that getting to know our colleagues is rewarding and beneficial. However, there is a dark side that is worth mentioning here. Over the last several years, I have noticed that some of the relationships I have built with coworkers have been built around suffering and discontent related to work and the organization at large. Having people to vent to is invaluable, but we must be aware about how we feed off and sometimes even exacerbate each other’s negativity. While solidarity is helpful, we do not want our workplaces to become pits of despair. Furthermore, we must try hard not to take on other people’s demons. When you care about and respect somebody, it is natural to take on their anger or frustration and to feel animosity for anything or anyone who made them feel badly. We must be careful to not let our empathy color future interactions or our own work. Otherwise, we risk contributing to a perpetual and helpless cycle of negativity that might have little to do with us. I try to be conscious of relationships that are grounded in complaining or criticism, and attempt to own up when I am responsible for it. I have experimented with the following antidotes that I offer as suggestions rather than guaranteed solutions. Try to share two positive statements for every one negative statement. Shift toward problem-solving or constructive action. Change the subject and be honest about why. Reflect on your own truth and reality after conversations, and be honest about how YOU feel. Take a break. Breathe.
SECOND AUTHOR’S NOTE: There will be times when you work with people who are bad at their jobs, have horrible attitudes, and/or are toxic to your productivity and efficiency. I would still advocate for getting to know these people to improve workplace dynamics and overall work quality. However, we should not feel pressure to build relationships with people we think will harm us (emotionally, mentally, and even physically). Personal awareness is key.
We all have different work styles and some of us are okay with thinking about and doing work at all hours, seven days a week. I am not one of these people and I learned it the hard way. In a previous job, I was regularly working 65 or more hours a week. It was a high-stress job working with high-needs students and it required me to be “on” at all times. My to-do list was always running through my head, and no matter how hard or long I worked, I never felt like I was doing or producing enough. I regularly worked through weekends, sacrificing time with my family and partner. When the little red email dot popped up on my phone, I felt like I had to look at it and address the contents immediately. After a year and a half and a slew of intensely emotional incidents with students, I ended up in a hospital with chest pain, certain I was dying. Physically, my heart was fine. Emotionally, I needed a serious break. I was killing myself and I needed to make some important decisions about my life’s priorities and the sustainability of my work habits.
A few months later, I left that job and simultaneously adopted work habits that require me to turn off, for real.
There are still occasions when I have to work late or substantially more hours than is healthy. I also have not mastered my brain and there are days and even weeks when turning off seems to be physically impossible. Yet, the above practices have helped me better balance my life and might be helpful to others on the edge of burnout or who are putting undue pressure on themselves.
There is also another dimension of turning off that is related to being a leader, supervisor, or mentor. First, the way that we act serves as a model for those with whom we work. Furthermore, the practices we adopt for ourselves we often expect from others. What message does it send if we are sending or responding to emails at 2am, on the weekends, or during our vacations? What happens when we lift up people who work until midnight as examples for others? What values do we espouse if we expect our staff to always be on-call and on-point? What happens if we do not give our people the space to turn off? What are our people sacrificing? How does this impact the bottom-line?
I once withdrew an application for a job because the only correspondence I ever received from the hiring manager was after midnight. Based on these interactions, I made assumptions about the organization’s culture and expectations for staff, and whether these assumptions were fair or true, I felt that I could not work there. Recently, I have been coaching a nonprofit leader who regularly expresses frustrations that her staff do not work hard enough, or respond to her requests in a timely fashion. Upon digging deeper, we discovered that her staff were overloaded and that this sense of being overwhelmed was exacerbated by requests coming in after working hours. They were starting their days feeling like they were already behind and that there was no way to catch up. We have been working on setting boundaries and better communicating expectations around responsiveness and the timing of requests.
I have found that respecting my staff’s personal time, responsibilities, and outside-of-work passions makes an enormous difference and often translates to better, more committed work when they are in the office. Additionally, being specific about deadlines and taking time to walk people through timelines and work-scopes from start to finish, allows people to plan their time more efficiently according to their own work preferences. In check-ins, I go out of my way to ask about life outside of work to show that having a life outside of work is valued and important. I am also sure to ask about how people feel about their workloads and adjust as necessary or appropriate. Just as I need to make space for myself to turn off, I also try to prioritize my staff’s well-being so that they do not fall victim to the same traps and pressures that I did early in my professional life.