Treat your colleagues like sisters and brothers

Culture  Relationships
11 December, 2017

How can we build a familial sense of caring and loyalty at the workplace?

In business, we have colleagues and co-workers. In the military, they call each other brothers and sisters.

This observation, pointed out by noted author, Simon Sinek, really resonated with me. One of the things that struck me over the last few months, as we have been talking to our teams about The Godrej Way, is how much we value meaningful relationships here at Godrej.

Brothers and sisters share an unbreakable bond. They may fight, but their love remains strong. They might disagree, but they will not intentionally hurt each other. And when an external threat shows up, they stand shoulder to shoulder, ready to protect each other. That is exactly the kind of Godrej we want to build.

Our values play a particularly strong role in enabling this.

So, drawing from this, my message this week focuses on how to treat colleagues like brothers and sisters.

When colleagues care deeply about each other, the long-term organisational impact is astounding: all the traditional metrics go up, attrition goes down, and employees band together (instead of leaving) during tough times. Not to mention that people are genuinely happier at the workplace.

The office isn’t a cold place marked by impersonal transactions – it’s filled with warmth and enjoyment, and with people who are invested in one other’s success. Just like brothers and sisters in the military, a corporate team that works together can accomplish amazing things, far beyond anything we can achieve as individuals.

Of course, the key question is: how do you build this kind of love and loyalty amongst those who don’t share bonds of blood and didn’t actually grow up together? Or, as Sinek puts it: how do you create brothers and sisters out of strangers? 

In fact, leaders need to play the primary role in creating strong, familial corporate cultures. Think of an actual family: When parents raise their children with common values and beliefs, they give them a strong foundation upon which the lifetime sibling bond is formed. When parents spend quality time with their children, respect them, and devote themselves to their success, that’s when children flourish. Similarly, leaders at all levels must take on this role for those in their charge. By unifying our teams around common values, giving them the tools they need, and being an unwavering source of support, we can create camaraderie and loyalty, ultimately making us a stronger organisation.

So, as leaders, what tools, and approaches can we use to bring about this transformation?

1. Stop separating “work” and “life”

In a bid to maintain work-life balance, some people choose not to make any friends at work. In truth, an overlap between these two worlds has the potential to make you much happier. Think about it: with whom do you spend the maximum amount of time on a daily basis? Your colleagues, of course. Which means that getting to know them as people and investing in meaningful equations with them can transform the quality of your life. In her article, We All Need Friends at Work, published in the Harvard Business Review, Christine M. Riordan sums up the benefits:

Employees report that when they have friends at work, their job is more fun, enjoyable, worthwhile, and satisfying. Gallup found that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage fully in their work.

Leaders have the potential to break down the “let’s just keep it to business” barriers within their teams by walking the talk. Stop eating lunch alone, refusing to talk about your personal life, or opting out of social events with colleagues outside of office hours. Instead, make it a point to set some time aside for work friendships – let your team see that you value your co-workers as people. Have lunch with your team members or peers at least a few times a week. Set aside some informal time in your calendar to catch up, and lead the way by sharing stories from your life. Go ahead and plan that long-overdue dinner at home with a few close colleagues and their families: such interactions add depth to your relationship and increase the emotional stake you have in one another’s well-being.

2. Care authentically

Sinek highlights an excellent test of good leadership, shared by his friend who is a three-star general in the US Marine Corps: when you ask someone how their day is going, you actually care about their answer. Too often, leaders make half-hearted attempts to convince people that they care. They ask how the other person is, but don’t really listen or respond to the answer. They meet a team member for lunch, but fail to ask them any insightful questions. They go out for drinks with colleagues, but only speak in monosyllables all evening. Without authenticity, these actions are pointless – in fact, they probably create more distance because other people can sense your lack of honesty. Sincerity lies at the heart of building strong relationships – this is one area in which faking it simply doesn’t work.

Authenticity is a value that needs to be nurtured by leaders. Perhaps more than anything, this is what transforms strangers into brothers and sisters. Mere co-workers keep things superficial: they nod along and hold back their own views, they say they are fine even when they’re not, and they don’t call out off-value behaviours. But in a team where sincerity is valued, we see very different attitudes. People share their real feelings, because they know their leader and peers actually care. They offer honest suggestions, because they are truly invested in the outcomes. They work up the courage to have difficult conversations, because they know it’s better to air things out rather than letting resentment and misunderstandings simmer. When a team is bound together by this common understanding, enabled by their leader, they become a stronger and far more effective unit.

3. Kickstart the ripple effect

Sinek describes an excellent philosophy for making sure that everyone in the organisation has a meaningful relationship with their leader. In large corporations, it is impossible for top management to actually care (in a personal way) about every single person – sadly, you are limited by lack of time and memory. Instead, you must focus on caring deeply for the people within your charge: support them, give them the tools they need, and instil in them that they must take care of the people in their charge. Consequently, this second set of leaders will then pass on the same values to their teams, and so on and on. This means that eventually, each person in the organisation will be able to look to at least one leader – who knows their name and recognises their face – who demonstrably cares for their success and well-being.

4. Have fun!

Social interactions – be it chatting over a cup of coffee, playing a team-building game, or going out for dinner – allow us to cement our friendships in important ways. Too many leaders make the mistake of thinking that “fun” is meaningless, that it takes away from the real work. But having fun together is integral to turning a group of individuals into a team. Just think of the way siblings’ lifetime bonds are forged in hours of play, laughter, and family vacations. The same holds true for us – camaraderie unlocks greater closeness and understanding, ultimately turning us into better colleagues. As leaders, we must make an effort to create more (not less) opportunities for this and ensure that each team member feels included.

In her article, Riordan also highlights the unifying effect of camaraderie, explaining that it builds “a common purpose and the mentality that we are in-it together”. She points out that many companies are actively organising regular corporate challenges for their employees to build a sense of togetherness and commitment. So, when such events come up, don’t treat them as a useless distraction – instead, encourage your team members to participate, have some fun, and get to know their colleagues better!

5. Give without taking

Generosity is crucial to genuine, long-lasting relationships. Do you only give a favour if you get one in return? Do you go out of the way solely for those in positions of power? Does your support come with strings attached? Make no mistake, while such tactics might win you a few short-term victories, this attitude is extremely harmful in the longer term. Taking their cue from you, team members will adopt the same approach towards each other, lending assistance only if they can get something out of it. You will also suffer personally, as your relationships become transactional, missing the true respect and fondness that a leader should inspire.

Leaders must be as generous as possible with their time, talent, and knowledge. Give as much as you can without any expectation of short-term returns. Although they accumulate slowly, the rewards of such generosity are abundant. You will see people you care about flourish, knowing you played a part in their success. You will inspire those around you to support one another without ulterior motives – just like (you guessed it) brothers and sisters. And if the day comes when you need some help, you will find numerous willing hands extended.

6. Assess your relationships

In The 5 Biggest Mistakes You’re Making With Work Relationships, Ken and Scott Blanchard recommend a quick assessment to see where your relationships stand. Identify the people with whom you have relationships at work. Then, ask yourself three sets of questions about each person.

  • Do you know what is important to them? Do you know what they are really after and what their priorities are? If you don’t, there’s probably a gap you need to address.
  • Do you know anything personal about them? What’s happening with their family? What do they like to do during off-hours?  Get to know the complete person.
  • Is your current relationship positive, neutral, or negative with that person?  If it is negative ask yourself, “What could happen if this relationship continues to be bad or gets worse? Could it eventually threaten me or my organization? What can you do to fix it?”

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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