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A Community at Work

Why you should want to get to know people at work

Why you should want to get to know people at work

An experienced gardener knows that you cannot grow plants with infertile soil. Naturally, the soil alone will not produce the vegetables or flowers you want. You still have to plant the seeds, and regularly provide them with water and nourishment. But none of these actions will work without fertile soil to begin with. Similarly, a non-existent or superficial work relationship rarely creates a climate for strong collaboration. 

Making a difference at work—big or small—rarely comes from one person acting alone; it comes from a group of people working together: sharing information and ideas, coordinating efforts on multiple fronts. If you want to get things done—especially if you want to see real change—you need to build

genuine relationships across your organization, regardless of its size. 

Why is this? We humans are social animals. Nearly four decades of research in social psychology have shown that one of the most powerful forces in motivating people to take action is a feeling of relatedness (E. Deci & R. Ryan), of being connected to others. 

It’s actually hard-wired into our bodies. Over a decade of research in neuroscience has shown that when we interact with people whom we trust and share an identity with, certain chemicals (e.g. oxytocin) are released in our bodies, increasing our feeling of well-being (Shawn Achor).

The purpose of building a relationship with someone should always be genuine, to connect with them as a person and to build a community. You should NEVER pretend to be someone’s friend in order to get something out of them. If the ethical reasons alone don’t convince you, just know that this approach will backfire: eventually, someone will see through it and feel manipulated. And when multiple people see that you are doing this, they will start whispering to each other, and a toxic reputation can develop quickly. 


“Humans are tribal by instinct, and it requires very little for us to start competing against each other for resources or power”



So, what does this mean for work? 

First, your colleagues want to be seen as more than a “resource,” they want to be seen as a person. You would be surprised by the number of people who feel invisible (or anonymous) at work. So, just reaching out to someone and getting to know him or her on a basic level has a big impact on that person. 

Second, the more that your colleagues feel part of something bigger than themselves—a community—the more of an effort they will make. Simply by making small efforts to boost this sense of community, you are elevating the overall performance level of your organization. 

Third, according to Systems Theory, people have an instinctive need for meaning in life, and when a community has a shared goal and purpose, its members not only experience greater well-being, they feel a stronger desire to take action. (Capra & Luisi, Senge) If you really want to accomplish amazing things, remind your colleagues of the larger organizational purpose. 

Heres the problem.

 Unless you’re self-employed, you probably work for an organization in which people are split up into separate groups with different responsibilities (e.g. sales, production, finance, R&D, HR, procurement etc.). Now, this is done for a good reason: having people focus on what they’re best at is almost always more efficient than having everyone do everything. 

Unfortunately, this has a big side-effect: separating people into different groups magnifies the “us vs. them” mindset. Humans are tribal by instinct, and it requires very little for us to start competing against each other for resources or power (Tajfel & Turner). So, any additional categorizing—for example, according to responsibility area—can strengthen the urge to “fight” each other. One example of this is the story bout Tom and Andrew. You’ve probably seen this at your own workplace when people in one department complain about people in another department, and are reluctant to give support, or even share information. This is especially common when certain business areas come from an acquired company that used to be the competition! 

Many organizations make an effort to overcome these challenges. They use technologies, such as intranet, to increase communication and collaboration between different parts of an organization. While technology can ease the flow of information, we all know from experience that the quality and quantity of information that people share with each other depends very much on how strongly they feel like making the extra effort. You often hear the expression “garbage in, garbage out.” 

Large organizations also do an admirable job by creating formal cross-functional teams. This creates a decent amount of collaboration and knowledge sharing between various units and regions. However, it’s seldom enough, because the “relationships” are made for the employees, and in some cases creates resistance. It’s like your parents telling you who to play with as a kid. Our motivation increases dramatically when we feel more in control (“autonomy”), free to choose our actions ourselves (Deci & Ryan). For this reason, relationships that people initiate on their own, as well as groups that self organize (Capra & Luisi), have much stronger connections. And this is where you come in. 

One of the most powerful things you can do to dissolve the tension between different teams and units is to start building informal relationships across various parts of the organization. 

The most successful organizations have a really strong identity for the whole organization, and building informal relationships with people from various functions and units not only reinforces the identity of this larger community, it also opens up new pathways of communication. 

Just like a super-pill creating additional neural circuits in your brain, opening up new pathways of communication at work has many beneficial effects: it speeds up the process of sharing information and allows you to get much needed feedback and opinions; it facilitates the spread of success stories and best practices; and it allows you to get and give support when needed. Lastly, it allows you to solve problems and come up with new ideas on an entirely different level. Creativity often requires a synergy of ideas, and this only happens when you connect diverse perspectives and pieces of information. In order to accomplish this at work, it’s generally best to bring together people from different parts of an organization, people who have different skill sets and experience. Informal relationships make this possible. 

If you want to have a community of informal relationships, you’ve got to do your part by connecting people. First, you have to make it a habit to get to know more colleagues yourself. To learn more about this, read my opinion post about who to build relationships with, Reaching Across Borders. Then you have to bridge relationships between other people, creating more pathways of connection. To learn more about this, read my opinion post The Power of Connecting People. Lastly, you can have a multiplier-effect on building a community by encouraging and teaching your colleagues to do the same. 

We can learn a lot about building relationships and a community from social organizers: the first step they take in any kind of movement or campaign is getting to know the people in their local community (Groundbreakers) They spend time with people, talking with them, listening to them, not trying to persuade them of anything. As a result of this person-to-person connection, people are much more willing to get engaged and take action in the social movement. This approach can be adapted to any kind of work situation.

Yes, this takes some extra time in the short-term, but the benefit saves you a tremendous amount of time—and headache—down the road when you’re trying to work with people to get things done.

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Whether it’s people with similar roles and interest, people who are very different from each other, or people from different organizations, there are countless opportunities for catalyzing relationships. In doing so, not only are do you reduce risk, but you strengthen your organization’s sense of community and overall performance. On top of that, catalyzing relationships is an example of a power law, because it can have many indirect benefits: the people you connect with each other may not only benefit for the reasons you intended, but may also benefit in other ways that you didn’t even think of. Lastly, by connecting people from different parts of the organization, you are setting an example, which may encourage others to catalyze relationships as well. So, what are you waiting for?

Reflection Questions

Take a few minutes to think about your own experience in building trusting relationships. Think of someone with whom you built a trusting relationship that benefited the work process: 

1. What was your reason for first getting into contact with this person in the first place?

2. What was your process for getting to know this person more deeply and how did this increase the level of trust in the relationship? 

3. In what way did the trust in the relationship improve your collaboration with this person?



Select one person in each of the three categories


Choose one person whom you don’t know very well, but have to work with. 

The next time you talk with the person, take extra time to ask about his/her weekend, vacation, activities outside of work. Every time you speak with the person after that, follow-up and ask more questions.

Find one person you don’t have to talk to, but should talk to. You might cross paths at a kick-off, or a meeting that includes people whom you don’t normally talk to. 

Find out who the person is, introduce yourself, and establish some kind of 

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