Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Improve Relationships
With Co-workers
and Teammates

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts' Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/work.htm

Updated 03-02-2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-4 articles on optimizing your relationships. Few average adults have ever studied how to avoid and resolve common relationship problems. Have you?

      If you have significant relationship problems at work, school, and/or in a team or committee, keep them in mind as you read this. This article covers...

  • What's unique about co-worker relationships?

  • Typical surface and primary problems among co-workers,

  • Short and long-term options for resolving relationship problems with co-workers and superiors, and...

  • Suggestions for resolving problems with superiors.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • These Q&A items about relationships

  • keys to analyzing and resolving relationship problems 

  • options for communicating with "difficult people."


      A relationship occurs when the existence, values, traits, and/or behaviors of one person significantly affects the wholistic health of another person, in someone's opinion. People who work in the same organization ("co-workers") form relationships on several levels: 

  • Professional relationships are required by their respective job responsibilities. They may be solely work-related, and exchange no personal information on or off the job.

  • Professional acquaintances do exchange limited personal information on the job, but share no social contact outside of work.

  • Friendships occur when co-workers trust each other with personal information and see each other outside of work as co-equals.

Each level subconsciously shapes the expectations each person has about how to relate. In what follows, "co-worker" can also mean teacher, coach, board or committee member, student, or employee.

 What's Unique About Co-worker Relationships?

      Try saying your answer out loud. Then compare it to this:

      Compared to non-work relationships, co-workers must...

  • negotiate relationships whether they want to or not;

  • comply with different levels of "authority" - i.e. subjugate their personal and work opinions and needs to co-workers with higher job "rank;"

  • stay clear on their and their colleagues' job descriptions (responsibilities). Unlike friends, co-workers can have role strain, conflicts, and confusions.


  • every co-worker is steadily judged on how well they are "doing the job" by themselves, their peers, and their superiors. This can add relationship anxiety that non-workers don't face.

  • some jobs are intensely competitive (e.g. sales jobs), adding stress that healthy, personally-secure friends don't experience.

  • some work relationships are affected by an organizational dress and appearance code which  promote peer and executive criticism or approval.

  • sexual or romantic relations between co-workers are often frowned on or forbidden, despite human nature. Denying or hiding these adds significant personal and job stress.

  • some work relationships are shaped by outsiders via industry, professional, and/or legal regulations - e.g. union rules, local and professional ethical codes of conduct, and governmental restrictions against discrimination and harassment (e.g. EEOC). And...

  • employees can't confront or walk away from a "difficult" (aggressive, over-critical, demanding, rude, unavailable, indecisive, intrusive, controlling, etc) boss without risking their job and perhaps hindering their career. This can promote pretense and dishonesty - major relationship stressors.

      Bottom line - relationships between co-workers are more complex than other relationships. They are shaped by universal human needs plus a mix of factors like those above. This can mean more and different surface problems compared to non-work relationships. The principles of effective problem-solving apply to all relationships.

  Solving Problems with Co-workers

      This brief YouTube video introduces tools for improving any relationship. The video mentions eight lessons in thus self-improvement Web site. I've reduced that to seven.

      Premise - relationship "problems" occur when some needs of one or both people aren't met. Common social needs healthy adults have are for genuine (vs. dutiful) honesty, empathy, interest, cooperation, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, kindness, and respect.

      Typical role and relationship problems come in levels: surface, intermediate, and primary. Most people (like you?) are unaware of this, and focus on resolving surface problems - leaving their primary needs unfilled. Typical surface problems among co-workers can sound like...

"She never listens to / always interrupts / talks at / talks down to / me."

"He's always late."

"She tends to pry and gossip."

"He avoids taking responsibility."

"She uses vulgar language too often."

"My boss doesn't know how to chair a meeting / delegate / make decisions / motivate us / promote teamwork / recognize good performance..." etc.

"I can't read his handwriting."

"Her personal problems interfere with our work."

"I can't rely on him - he never follows through."

"She'll do anything to get ahead."

"He's not team player."

"I get really tired of her sexual innuendos!"

"That's not my job, it's yours!"

      Surface problems among volunteers often sound the same as those among salaried workers.

      These are vexing - and none of them is the real problem.

The Primary Problems

      If you have a significant problem with a co-worker, the probable primary problem is some mix of these:

  • KEY: You and/or the other person are psychologically wounded, and are fear-based or shame-based.

  • You're not really clear on what you need from the other person and/or what they need from you.

  • You're not clear on everyone's personal rights, regardless of roles and responsibilities.

  • You're blaming the other person and avoiding responsibility for your half of the problem.

  • You're taking responsibility for the other person's feelings ("If I tell Alice her bad breath disgusts me, she'll be hurt.")

  • You're not asserting your needs clearly and forcefully or listening empathically.

  • You're avoiding confrontation for various reasons.

  • KEY: You two don't know how to problem-solve effectively, including how to spot and resolve current communication blocks.

  • You're focusing on surface problems, not these underlying primary stressors

  • Your supervisor or manager is unable or unwilling to resolve staff conflicts effectively - and/or you're not asking for help with your problems.

  • You two don't know how to spot and resolve values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles

  • You don't know how to spot and resolve work-related role conflicts, confusions, and strain. 

  • Your job responsibilities don't match your interests, abilities, and goals.

  • You and/or your co-worker have unrealistic expectations of each other, and you don't know that or how to correct it.

      Notice what you're feeling and thinking now. Do you see...

  • the vital difference between surface and primary relationship problems?

  • the value of helping each other identify concurrent needs and problems (plural), and resolve them one at a time?

  • how essential it is to develop process awareness and these other skills in all your relationships?

  • why organizational executives should model and teach these ideas and skills to all employees?

       So what can you do to avoid and resolve problems with your workmates or schoolmates?


      You have immediate choices and long-term choices:

Short Term

      Some links below will open a new window. Follow them after you finish reading this article.

  • KEY: assess yourself for psychological wounds. If you find some, make reducing them your top priority. Wounds promote and amplify all relationship problems!

  • assess your "problem co-worker" for symptoms of false-self dominance (wounds). If s/he has some, see this after you finish here.

  • study these articles on identifying your needs, and effective assertion, listening, and problem-solving. Then apply them.

  • evaluate whether your attitudes are contributing to your problem/s. If so, revise them. Difficulty with this suggests a false self rules you.

  • practice using respectful assertive ''I''-messages with co-workers on all levels.

  • study and apply these ideas for analyzing and resolving any relationship problem.

  • experiment with these examples of responding effectively to annoying behaviors.

  • alert co-workers on all levels to what you're learning here. Invite them to read this article and act on these options with you.

Long Term

      Adopt a multi-year attitude, and study and apply at least Lessons 1 thru 4 in this free online course. If you need motivation, invest time in these quizzes.

Problems With Superiors

      Work relationships with supervisors and managers pose special problems, because of their authority to demote, reassign, or fire you. So pleasing your superiors personally and professionally adds to normal relationship needs. Superiors may be more concerned with hiring and keeping a stable, competent, satisfied work force, than with pleasing individual employees.

      Part of being an effective manager on any level is proactively spotting and resolving employee conflicts. Another part is an organizational open-door policy, promoting free dialog between employees and managers. A third vital factor is effective training in people-skills for new managers, and a fourth one is regular evaluation of each managers' competence at training. motivating, delegating, and guiding employees.

      If your problem is with a superior, check for these four factors. If they're not clearly there, your real problem may be that you've chosen a low-nurturance ("dysfunctional') organization to work for. If so, part of your problem is that senior management (top execs and board members) are probably wounded psychologically and unaware of what you're reading here. Your part of the problem is learning how to evaluate a prospective employer's organizational health. How to do that is beyond the scope of this article.

      Guidelines for solving relationship problems with a superior:

  • check to see that your true Self is guiding you. If not, lower your expectations.

  • stay clear on your mutual rights as dignified, worthy persons. Use your rights as the basis for asserting your work-related needs, regardless of your job rank. Alternatives are to assert timidly or arrogantly. Stay aware of the difference between requests and demands.

  • make sure you and the superior agree on what you and s/he are each responsible for, relative to your workplace. Option - ask for a written job description of both your jobs, to avoid confusion and unrealistic expectations.

  • maintain a steady attitude of mutual respect, regardless of differences in your organizational roles and titles. If you don't respect your superior personally or professionally, identify what it would take to gain respect. Then use the Serenity Prayer as appropriate.

  • adopt an attitude of mutual problem-solving ("how can we both fill our needs?"), rather than combative arguing, fighting, manipulating, avoiding, and/or criticizing.

  • be brief, clear, and objective in describing what you need. Consider the pros and cons of first submitting a written description of your needs and proposed solution/s.

  • offer constructive suggestions to fix "the problem," rather than just complaining.

  • avoid judging a difficult superior or co-worker as ''abusive.'' A less provocative adjective is "aggressive." Using pejorative labels (e.g. stupid, idiotic, brainless, retarded,...) to describe anyone suggests that false-selves control you.

  • if your superior requires you to do something that violates your integrity, complying is a form of self-abandonment which will usually lower your self respect.

  • tailor the options above to fit your personalities and situation.

How do these guidelines compare with your present way of relating well with superiors at work? 


      This is one of a series of Lesson-4 articles on optimizing your  relationships. It explores improving relationships with co-workers, colleagues, and teammates on all levels. Work relationships are usually more complex and problem-prone than non-work relationships because of a number of environmental factors.

      The article covers:

  • What's unique about co-worker relationships?

  • Typical surface and primary problems among co-workers,

  • Short and long-term options for resolving relationship problems with co-workers and superiors, and...

  • Guidelines for relating well to superiors.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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