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Why Dealing With Other People Is Our Biggest Challenge

... and how rewards, rules, and curiosity could help.

Key points

  • Many people report that "dealing with others" is their biggest struggle at work when it comes to their well-being.
  • According to Professor Jane Dutton, high-quality connections at work can provide a sense of positive regard for others.
  • To increase high-quality connections, workplaces should set rules of engagement and reward collective achievement.

Lately, have you been finding that dealing with other people at work is often zapping your patience and draining your energy? If you’re nodding your head, you’re not alone. Our studies found that "dealing with others" had become the biggest struggle most workers reported when it came to caring for their well-being at work during the past 12 months.

“The kind of low-quality connections many of us have experienced at work due to the restrictions of the global pandemic is life-depleting. These corrosive connections at work can be difficult and drain the energy from us,” explained Professor Jane Dutton, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan when we interviewed her recently. “However, even a single encounter with another person where you feel seen, feel known, and experience mutual regard for each other can fortify you and be an antidote against loneliness.”

For example, Dutton's research has found that when we experience a high-quality connection at work—an interaction where you get a sense of mutual awareness and being on the same page as the other person—these interactions act like interpersonal vitamins. They light you up; they energize you and give you a sense of positive regard for others.

As a result, these connections strengthen you and help build up your psychological and emotional resources. Even a single encounter with another person where you feel seen, feel known, and experience mutual regard for each other can fortify you and be an antidote against loneliness.

They have also been found to leave you feeling more grateful, optimistic, and positive about your future. And one of the most important impacts of these connections is that they build the social fabric and psychological safety of teams and organizations so that cooperation and collaboration become easier and of higher quality.

The good news is that studies have found that it doesn’t take much for people to experience a high-quality connection at work; it can happen in a micro-moment or develop over longer periods of time. Dutton recommends trying:

  • Setting rules of engagement. Whether your people work in close physical proximity or virtually, they can be just interacting and not connecting. Consider how you bring people together. For example, have some rules of engagement about the use of technology in meetings, as even the presence of a phone can really disrupt people's sense of being connected to others.
  • Rewarding collective achievement. Build collective, rather than individual, rewards in your workplace. For example, provide peer-to-peer rewards for doing the kind of helping that helps get the work done in ways that foster a more meaningful social fabric between people.
  • Onboarding people for relationships. During the first few weeks on the job, don't just onboard people for their tasks; onboard them to create better connections across the organization. During new situations, people are more open to new behaviors, so this is an excellent opportunity to set a trajectory for people to be part of a richer and more connected social tissue.
  • Being curious about corrosive connections. Adopt an attitude of curiosity about what's going on in your challenging relationships. Try to fully engage the other person to find out what's going on with them and their experience of the interactions. After all, most people want to work toward making it better. Be open to engaging some advice, extra resources, or tools to help you resolve the situation.

What can you do to improve the quality of your connections with others at work?

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