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4 ways to improve workplace relationships

Difficult relationships can be fixed, but it takes clear intentions and a willingness to set boundaries.

5 min read



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The latest research shows that friendships increase employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a good friend at work are seven times more engaged than those without workplace friends. Most of us spend more time at work than at home, and that is why workplace drama can be detrimental to productivity, employee engagement, work-life satisfaction and talent retention.

Here are four ways to improve workplace relationships and reduce relationship drama.

Speak truth quickly and kindly

Underneath most relationship drama is a conversation that never happened. There’s an elephant in the room, everyone knows it but no one wants to say anything about it. We avoid talking about

  • Poor performance
  • Inappropriate humor
  • Bad social habits
  • Body odor
  • Boundary issues

Avoiding only puts the relationship at risk and speaking truth quickly helps the other person adjust, understand and change.

What to do: Before bringing up sensitive topics, find your intention. Think of intention as part outcome and part “come-from”; in other words, a goal with a soul. Your intention is to improve your relationship, provide better collaboration, to offer insight into your world. With the right intention, it’s a lot easier to discuss things that would otherwise be off limits.

Set appropriate boundaries

Is there someone in your life who continuously steps over or ignores boundaries? These people interrupt your workflow, turn your open door into a revolving door or weigh you down with negativity.

I used to have someone in my life who interrupted my work day to complain endlessly about her life. I tried ignoring, laughing it off and giving advice, but nothing worked. One day I blew up and I ended up speaking my truth in a not-so-kind way. (Luckily, the person didn’t take it personally.)  Instead she showed me the way.

She said, “The problem is you. I don’t want to be fixed, or given advice, I just want to vent.”  That’s when I got it.

I said, “Then I will let you vent for five minutes but not for two hours.” In one moment I set a boundary that has preserved our relationship and given me my time back.

What to do: There are three steps to appropriate boundary setting. First you must define the problem. What is happening that you don’t want to happen? For example, Kim continues to interrupt you when you are with a customer.

Second, determine what it is that you want Kim to stop or start doing. For example, you want Kim to set an appointment before barging in your office.

Third, get crystal clear about what you can do if Kim doesn’t respect your wishes. For example, you can shut and lock your office door. Remember, a boundary is something that you can control. While you can’t control Kim, you do have choices about how to respond. Yes, Kim might get angry at first, but you are giving Kim a chance to grow.

Let others grow

Taking on everyone else’s issues is called rescuing. As a leader, when you rescue your employees, you create dysfunction by encouraging them to rely on you as the answer to all their problems. It feels good to help other people, but as the saying goes, you give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. If you’ve tried to teach your employee to fish but he still won’t cast a line, or take the fish off the hook, it’s time to help them grow.

What to do: Take stock of your own enabling patterns. Do you have an underperformer who continues to disappoint even though you’ve “told them a thousand times?” If so, that means you have allowed the poor behavior 999 times!

Do you keep accepting lame excuses? It’s time to go back to steps one and two. Set your intention and have a performance conversation. Articulate clearly what the consequences will be if the required change is unmet. In order to break the pattern and promote growth, you have to allow consequences to show how cause and effect works in the workplace.   

Stop blaming

If I had a nickel for every time a manager and an employee complain about each other, I’d have a house full of coins. One of the biggest causes of relationship drama is believing that you’d be happier or more successful if only someone else would change. We get to know ourselves by the mirror that relationships provide.

What to do: Take note of how often you talk about someone else being the obstacle to your well-being. Repeat often, “I take responsibility for my experience.” If you find that someone on your work team takes up a lot of emotional or mental space, make a commitment to have a heart-to-heart dialogue with the intention of cleaning up the disturbance. It’s one thing when people don’t actually know they irritate you. It’s another when they know it and keep doing the same thing.


Relationships can be a source of drama or a source or energy renewal. We owe it to ourselves and our co-workers to be the best version of ourselves and to encourage them to be their best version. We only do this by speaking truth quickly and kindly, setting appropriate boundaries, giving others the space to grow and stop blaming others for our experiences.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018).  Download “The Bottom Line: How Executive Conversations Drive Results.” Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

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