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Employer of Choice: Managing Coworker Relationships

People work with others to achieve common goals. Whether an organization is for profit, or non-profit – we typically accomplish more through the interaction with and assistance from other people.

The quality of human relationships (and coworker relationships) allows some teams to be amazingly productive with only a few people and a marginal infrastructure – while other teams are lethargic, despite having an extensive infrastructure, financial resources, and large teams.

Benefits of Strong Coworker Relationships: Team development can reduce turnover and increase productivity. Organizations that maintain constructive interpersonal relationships benefit financially as well as culturally.

Strong Coworker Relationships allow you to Resolve Problems Early: Disagreements seem to be more disruptive, faster, and remain damaging longer than one might expect. Problem: resolving “people problems” at work is time consuming and frustrating.

Strategy: Managing the following five factors can help immunize your organization against reoccurring, disabling problems between people at work.

Limited Resources

Possibly the most common correlate of conflict is limited resources. Do you have so few printers that people consistently stand in line? Have too few parking spaces? Not enough budget? In general, if you put your managers or employees into a situation where they are forced to compete for resources, expect to see increased conflict.

Hint: Look for “bottlenecks” and sources of conflict, and solve them. Often it is not that you don’t have enough resources, it is that those resources are not used efficiently. Frequently, there are cost-effective, creative solutions that are satisfying to everyone.

Zero-Sum Games

Enhance coworker relationships by eliminating unnecessary zero-sum games. A zero-sum game occurs when you create a situation where to the extent that one person wins, others must lose. If you have one open position and multiple people compete for that position, you have a zero-sum game. Zero-sum games reduce communication, cooperation, and teamwork among the competing parties. These competing parties can be people, departments, or divisions. Thus, the disruption can occur on a very large scale.

Reality: Many zero-sum games are unavoidable; e.g., you can’t hire all applicants for a single position.

Alternative: Identify and redefine your unnecessary zero-sum games through the use of an employee survey or other fact-finding tool. Is it that you only want to award the “top” salesperson – or is it better to award every sales person who exceeds their goals by twenty percent? Which is better for the company? Which is likely to produce more cooperation, more teamwork, and better customer service?

Tip: Examine your reward and recognition structure if you have a group of people with a history of low teamwork. People will adopt more aggressive behavior to obtain that reward or recognition if you are rewarding individual achievement. You have created a zero-sum game if you are rewarding an individual, rather than the team. This is not to say that zero-sum games are all bad – just make sure that you are not unnecessarily creating zero-sum games. These may be doing more damage than good.


Fear destroys personal relationships, organizational commitment, and innovation. People talk, but little is said of substance. Most communication may simply support the status quo. Fear is frequently the result of blame and/or excessive criticism at work.

Tip: Examine people’s responses to suggestions or problems.

Blame: Some organizations solve problems by finding out “who did it” and making sure they “don’t do it again.” This is a structure based on blame and criticism.

In contrast, other organizations try to discover where the problem occurred, then identify what it was about their policies and procedures that allowed the problem to occur. The assumption is that since the person didn’t try to do it on purpose, there must be something about their normal practices that allowed, if not encouraged, the mistake to happen. The focus is on refining processes, not blaming people. By utilizing an employee survey, opportunities for process improvements can be identified.

Underlying Causes: Make sure that people have enough authority to do their work and that management has not created a hostile environment for new ideas.

Authority: If people have enough authority to do their jobs, when a problem occurs, they solve it. This defuses blame and criticism.

Hostile Environment: Management can plead for innovation, while at the same time, it unknowingly creates a hostile environment for new ideas. In some organizations, if a new idea doesn’t come from a specific source (e.g. from the top, managers, consultants, or competitors), it will never be taken seriously. In other organizations, when a new idea doesn’t work perfectly without revision, the author is permanently “branded” as incompetent. Few people will step forward with innovative ideas if it means their careers are destroyed when their ideas don’t work perfectly without refinement.


All management decisions are reviewed for fairness by employees.

Highest scrutiny: Decisions about pay, opportunities, and recognition.

Disagreement: Underlying many disagreements about fairness are two divergent views. To some, “fair rewards” means that everyone is treated the same. Example: traditional collective bargaining agreements establish specific pay for jobs regardless of performance. In contrast, others believe that “fair rewards” should be in proportion to the contributions made to the organization. Example: piece rate, commissions, and bonus structures are based on the concept of fairness in proportion to contribution.

Important: The criteria for raises, promotions, opportunities, or recognition should be explicit and clear. The larger the reward, the more rigid the company should be in following its guidelines. The smaller the reward, the more latitude you have in making individualized rewards.

Fairness vs. Actual Pay: Using our employee survey research, we have compared actual income (net pay) with the perception that the level of pay is fair. Fairness is more powerful than net pay. People who make less money are more satisfied if they think their wage is fair, as compared to someone who makes more money, but who thinks their wage (or bonus) is unfair.

Strategy: Obviously, “fairness” is a perception. People are more likely to perceive their pay as fair when they understand exactly how their reward (or pay) was determined. While some managers tend to avoid discussions about pay, the data shows that clear communication about how pay is determined produces good results and strengthens coworker relationships.

Important: Any steps you take to eliminate perceptions of favoritism or unfairness within an organization will yield higher levels of satisfaction and better relationships among managers and employees.


Organizations don’t exist without communication. The very process of organizing (establishing roles, responsibilities, vision, values, goals, reward and recognition structures, hiring, etc.) requires communication. Several areas of communication are especially relevant to coworker relationships.

Teamwork in white-collar organizations is the act of communicating with coworkers. Few occasions demand that people physically help you when you have work to do in white-collar organizations. More frequently, you need people to respond to your requests for information or help you solve specific problems.

Teamwork within workgroups is easier to manage than teamwork among workgroups. Typically, managers need to take an active role in establishing the relationships with other departments and the expectations of the nature and degree of teamwork among departments. Employee survey data results back up this finding.

Tip: Senior management can help teamwork among departments by creating and maintaining clear vision and value statements that help people see each other as similar groups working toward shared goals.

Acceptance of Co-Workers. We are more likely to trust, accept, and communicate with people whom we perceive to have similar values and goals to ourselves. Groups tend to isolate people they don’t trust and accept. Frequently, we assume this is a race or gender issue, but it is broader than that.

Example: In a Midwestern home office of an insurance company, a department of white-male underwriters isolated another white-male underwriter because he was single, college-educated, and drove a sports car – while the typical underwriters were high school educated, married, and drove family cars.

The criteria that workgroups use to include or exclude others are arbitrary. With one group, it could be gender. With another, it could be physical fitness. This is an issue of power, rather than the criteria itself. One quality the criteria typically share is that the person is not able to change that quality easily (e.g., ethnicity, gender, length of service, religion, or place of origin).

Be proactive. The extent to which managers thwart the relative exclusion and isolation of employees will make a significant difference in the employees’ tenure and ability to contribute to the organization. Create situations that require all employees to participate. Managers can also identify mentors for new-hires to help make sure they get important information. Again, employee surveys can help identify areas that require improvement in order to best utilize your workforce.

Summary. Managing coworker relationships can be challenging. Unfortunately, people don’t come with instruction manuals. Even in the best of environments, it can be hard to get people to talk about their problems in a constructive way. The best method is to create a workplace that promotes positive human relationships and you will encounter fewer problems (i.e., fire prevention is more efficient than fire fighting). If your workplace has the five good qualities discussed here (adequate resources, minimal zero-sum games, trust, fairness, and good communication), you will gain from greater employee engagement, satisfaction, tenure, and productivity.

A quantitative diagnosis, or employee survey, helps you manage co-worker relationships by identifying which issues are a problem, where they are a problem, and to what extent they are a problem.

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