Improving team relationships

Relationships look different for every team. Finding ways to foster openness and supportiveness will create a framework that allows your team to work through challenges.

Try this: draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper. On one side, write down the qualities of a good relationship. On the other, write down the qualities of a bad relationship. 

Common answers we see in good relationships include trusting, honest, friendly and caring. Common answers in bad relationships often include mean, selfish, inflexible and bad communicator. Thinking of the items you used to define both a good and bad relationship, how would they apply to those you work with?

Our work environments and work relationships have shifted significantly. Some found remote work to drastically improve their work relationships, while others found remote or hybrid work caused isolation and limited their team relationships. 

Whether you are working in-person, remote or hybrid, defining what makes a good team relationship is valuable for how we interact with others. Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson conducted research around this topic, and it has been replicated multiple times leading to more than 6,000 respondents to their research question: What makes a good team relationship?

Through their research, LaFasto and Larson identified four overarching observations:

  1. Good relationships are constructive for both people. 
  2. Good relationships are productive.
  3. Good relationships are characterized by mutual understanding.
  4. Good relationships are self-correcting.

These observations provide a high-level framework for evaluating work relationships. When evaluating our interactions in workplace relationships, we tend to score ourselves much higher than we really are. To build clarity around building effective work relationships, there are three questions to consider. 

Q1. What behaviors are most important in a team relationship?

Every employee will approach team relationships differently because we all have different viewpoints. Viewpoints are made up of three beliefs:

  1. Assumptions: Beliefs we have regardless of if we have all the facts.
  2. Perceptions: Beliefs we have based on our life experiences.
  3. Expectations: Beliefs we have on how people should behave.

If we approach our team through the lens of our viewpoints, we can quickly see how easy it is to become misaligned. It is natural and should be expected that we all bring different viewpoints to work. This awareness provides the opportunity to openly discuss behaviors we believe should be present within the team. 

LaFasto and Larson’s research identified two behaviors that were the most important:

  1. Openness – the ability to surface and deal with issues objectively.
  2. Supportiveness – bringing out the best thinking and attitude in the other person.

Throughout their research, these two behaviors consistently ranked as the most important. But what else can openness and supportiveness do for team relationships?

  • Openness shows employees feel safe to share their thoughts and ideas.
  • Supportiveness demonstrates commitment to others on the team.
  • Openness indicates employees feel empowered to address issues within the team.
  • Supportiveness indicates a level of trust and respect for others within the team.

As leaders, it can be difficult to create an environment where openness and supportiveness are the norm. However, being open and supportive to your employees while they experiment with what these behaviors look like within their team allows for employees to build confidence in their peers and leaders.

Q2. What is the greatest challenge in team relationships?

While openness and supportiveness are the top behaviors in team relationships, they can also cause issues within the team. 

Openness: What does it mean to be open with others on your team? If team members do not have a shared understanding of what can be expected, this behavior can quickly spiral downward for a team. For example, my teammate leads a presentation that has typos or incorrect data. If openness is calling out mistakes immediately, and I do so, then I could damage my relationship with my teammate as my actions may embarrass or hurt my teammate. While my intention was good, the misaligned understanding of openness can create strain. 

Supportiveness: How does supportiveness appear in your team? This is another behavior that needs alignment within a team. If my teammate drops something and I pick it up for them, am I being supportive? Or, what if they received negative feedback and I believe supporting them is telling them to “take the feedback with a grain of salt” knowing they really need to improve. If a team has struggled with trust and respect, it is common to see elevated levels of defensiveness between employees. Supportiveness needs to be sincere. If there is a history of insincere actions that have not been addressed, employees are going to be skeptical when a co-worker or their leader takes an unfamiliar approach. 

Openness and supportiveness are fragile. It is important we call out the value of our team alignment. We also must remember that no one is perfect. We are going to have bad days. When we do, call it out and be curious as to how the team can overcome. 

Q3. How do you build and sustain a collaborative team relationship?

LaFasto and Larson suggest we examine the four observations mentioned earlier: good relationships are constructive, productive, embrace mutual understanding and are constructively self-correcting. 

Each of these observations can be turned into questions to assess the current state of team relationships.

  1. Did we have constructive conversation? How do team members address conflict? If employees seek to cover any conflict, that creates an environment where resentment and frustration can emerge. Encouraging open conversation between two employees or as a team will foster a culture of openness. The main challenge is keeping our constructive conversations professional. If we allow the conversation to become personal, employees will become defensive and may shut down and remove themselves from engaging with their peers. 
  2. Was the conversation productive enough to make a difference? How will you know the conversation was effective? Simply waiting for behavior change is risky as behavior can be manipulated based on who is present. Helping employees develop actions to move forward will foster ownership of the relationship from the employees. 
  3. Did we understand and appreciate others’ perspectives? Are your employees willing to set their beliefs to the side to listen to what their teammates are saying? There should not be an expectation that every employee agrees with everything other peers say or do. Instead, how can you foster an environment where employees are curious and willing to act knowing their peers have different opinions? Leaders must set the expectation that other opinions will be heard. 
  4. Did we both commit to making improvements? Putting together an action plan that consists of the issue, steps for improvement, and follow up solidifies the conversation. It can be easy for employees to say they will make changes, and often that is where we leave conversations. However, laying out an action plan fosters support as it demonstrates the team takes matters seriously. As a leader, one of the most effective ways to encourage these improvements is following up with each employee. Show them you value their actions to support openness and supportiveness in your team. 

Team take-away: These three questions make for a wonderful team building activity. Use one question during your next team meeting. These questions will help build alignment in the view and expectations of your team members.