Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

By Kerry Roberts Gibson and Beth Schinoff, published on May 29, 2019 by Harvard Business Review

One afternoon a manager we’ll call Kassie sent an email to her teammate, 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 we’ve seen regularly in the almost nine years we’ve each spent studying work relationships. After all, how you relate to your coworkers 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 organization.

People tend to think about work relationships in the wrong way, however. Evolution wired humans to appraise situations as either “good” or “bad,” so they could 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. A large body of research not only confirms this but shows that individual relationships often include a mix of both positive and negative aspects.

Most people also see coworker relationships as being fixed: Good ones will always remain happy, and bad ones will never get better. Consequently, we take our healthy relationships for granted, instead of giving them the attention and investment they need. We also write off those that have soured, instead of taking steps to improve them. This, too, is misguided, because coworker relationships are actually fluid: Even the most toxic ones can be repaired, and the most positive can quickly spiral downward.

If you look closely, you’ll see that coworker relationships are actually made up of a series of “micromoves” — small actions or behaviors that seem inconsequential in the moment but affect how we relate to one another. Micromoves are like the steps that characterize a dance. You take a step, and then your coworker takes a step. Each step, or micromove, can change the direction of the relationship. A small act of gratitude or compassion — like 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 suggest. 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 flavors, but according to Kerry’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 coworker relationships. Here are a few scenarios that are representative of what we’ve seen in our work:

  • 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 WebEx one morning. As you talk with her, you also 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 behavior in a later call.

These are just a few examples of how micromoves can shift relationships. The possibilities and outcomes are innumerable. And because relationships are all different, not everyone’s reaction to a micromove will be the same. For instance, when Kerry, Dana Harari, and Jennifer Carson Marr examined the effect of sharing a weakness with a coworker, they found that it damaged relationships if the person divulging a vulnerability was of higher status — but not when that person was the coworker’s peer.

How, then, can you figure out which micromoves will be helpful? We’ve come up with five guiding principles:

Understand your coworker’s point of 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. But she should have stopped to consider what was going on in Harrison’s life: Might he have just returned from a trip and confronted 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. So before you make a micromove, ask yourself how you would react were you on the receiving end. Then, 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.

Recognize that micromoves are not always intentional. If things seem to have suddenly gone off-track with a coworker, an unintentional micromove you made may be the culprit. Take the multitasking scenario above. Use your client’s reaction as a signal that you need to be more conscious of your own behavior. Identifying the cause of a colleague’s reaction can keep a small misunderstanding from becoming something bigger. That said, it’s important to note that an unintentional micromove might not always be to blame. Figuring out whether a coworker’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?”

Understand your role in the story. We often get so tied up in our own emotions that we lack a holistic picture of our coworker relationships or the impact of our own behavior. 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 behavior 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?

Journal your micromoves. Researchers recommend journaling as a tool to enhance your performance. We think it can also help you create deeper and more meaningful relationships. If there’s one relationship you’d like to alter, spend some time jotting down the various micromoves that you and your coworker have made in your five or six most recent interactions, including the responses each micromove elicited. For example, if you stepped forward (by, say, 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)? Journaling can help you recognize patterns in your relationships, and that can illuminate micromoves that might improve them.

Know that “good” and “bad” micromoves aren’t created equal. We might hope that a micromove that brings a coworker closer would compensate for one that pushes that coworker away. Unfortunately, micromoves that harm relationships are both easier to make and more powerful than beneficial ones. In well-cited research, Roy Baumeister of University of Queensland and his colleagues note that the effects of “bad” interactions far outweigh those of “good” interactions. So 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 coworker relationships have a natural ebb and flow. Every day you have countless opportunities to shape and reshape them. The key is making micromoves that build the coworker relationships you want, instead of just settling for the relationships you have.

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