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Want to Build Stronger Workplace Relationships?

Engage communal norms.

Key points

  • In communal relationships, people give benefits to others to support their welfare, not to gain offsetting benefits for themselves.
  • When one treats another person communally, it communicates that they care for the person and want to continue a relationship.
  • Looking for small ways to make others’ lives easier, with no expectation of repayment, can strengthen workplace relationships.
Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
Look for small ways to manifest the communal spirit in the workplace.
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

We spend a lot of time with our colleagues. And we want our work relationships to be strong, both because better relationships help us get stuff done and because they help us feel more connected, supported, and fulfilled at work.

Whether you’re initiating relationships with new colleagues or looking to strengthen existing connnections, communal norms offer a pathway for creating satisfying connections in the workplace (and beyond). What’s a communal norm, you ask? I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let’s do a little thought experiment.

Exchange Relationships

Imagine a marriage in which the individuals track each other’s respective contributions to the household. “I put gas in the car last time, so it’s your turn to do it this time.” “You cleared the dinner table three nights in a row, so I am in debt and must catch up.” “I spent $150 on groceries this week and you only spent $125 last week; you owe me $25.”

If this relationship sounds more transactional than close, there’s good reason: Tit-for-tat tracking of contributions and benefits is a hallmark of what social scientists call an exchange relationship. In such relationships, members give benefits with the expectation that a comparable benefit will be provided in quick return.

Exchange relationships exist throughout our daily lives. We pay the bus driver in exchange for a ride across town. We pay our gym membership in exchange for use of the facility. Employers pay our salary in exchange for our thinking and doing. Indeed, exchange relationships are normal, appropriate, and welcomed in a lot of situations.

But, get this: We notice, and dislike, when someone treats us with exchange norms when we either think our relationship is on friendlier terms or when we want it to be so.

For example, imagine that I think you and I have become decent work friends. We decide to bop over to the coffee shop on our break. Once there, you realize that you left your wallet in the office. No worries, I pick up the tab. Not a big deal, right? Well, if, upon our return to the office, you dig out your wallet, race to the ATM, get cash, and promptly repay me, guess what? You just told me that you see our relationship as governed by tit-for-tat sensibilities. That stings. Why?

Well, exchange norms aren’t the only game in town.

Communal Relationships

Other relationships are governed by what social scientists call communal norms. In these relationships, we give benefits to others to support their welfare, not to gain offsetting benefits for ourselves. Simple examples of this include texting your spouse when you make an impromptu stop at the market to ask if they need anything, helping a neighbor dig their car out after a snowstorm, or bringing a dozen donuts into the office as a “just because” treat for your co-workers.

In communal relationships, we pitch in, not because we have to or because we owe someone a favor, but because we see an opportunity to contribute positively to someone else’s world.

And, we understand that others who treat us with communal sensibilities value us and want to be in a relationship with us. This is why it stings when a co-worker trips over themselves to repay you a small favor when you thought you were in communal-land: They’re telling you that, no, in fact, you are squarely in the exchange neighborhood.

How to Create Satisfying Relationships at Work

So, how exactly might one go about applying this principle in the workplace to create satisfying relationships? Quite simply, look for small ways to bring a bit of light to others’ worlds and do so with no expectation of repayment.

Take the initiative to generate the calendar invite. Do the time zone math when sharing your availability so your colleague doesn’t need to do the translation. Volunteer to open up your calendar a bit more to avoid meeting while your colleague will be with their kids. Volunteer to take meeting notes for the crew. Offer to write the first draft of the document. Share the article you think others might find value in. Bring the donuts.

All of these are small ways to manifest the communal spirit within the operational constraints of the workplace. I would advise against trying all of these right out of the gate. Just pick one or two that you feel comfortable doing within your workplace. See how it feels. Notice how others respond.

Now, one of the hallmarks of communal relationships is that we don’t track the respective inputs and outputs of each person. But, of course, you don’t want to become the doormat who does everything for everyone else and who never benefits from reciprocal acts.

It’s worth noting here a distinction between communal norms versus communal relationships. The examples above are ideas for engaging communal norms with an eye toward creating more communal relationships. If the relationships are not already communal-leaning, it makes sense to pay a bit of attention to how others respond to the communal gestures. Ideally, your efforts fuel a virtuous cycle in the office, spurring others to contribute to the shared pool of communal care over time. But, if you’ve been at this for a while and come to find out you’re the only one contributing benefits to the common good, it may be time to reassess.

By behaving communally in the workplace, you’re saying, “I value our relationship and want it to continue. I’m here for you, and know you’re here for me, too.”

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