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Friends or Colleagues?

The people you should get to know if you want to get things done at work

The people you should get to know if you want to get things done at work

If you want to make an impact in your organization, then you already understand the importance of relationships and the need to work well with your colleagues in order to get results. However, many people are dismayed when they take the time to mobilize and coordinate activities with their colleagues, and still don’t get the information or support they need. Well-intentioned people suddenly find themselves complaining to their spouse or friends about a lazy co-worker, or “management” that is oblivious to reality on the ground.

A common mistake that people make at work is in how they view relationships: they either see work relationships as something separate from the job itself, or as a tool to get what they want. It’s not their fault for thinking this way. Over a century of management science has taught us to view an organization as a machine, and that relationships are something you use to keep the machine running, like the oil in the gears.

With such a mindset, many people assume that once a decision has been made, everyone should just fall in line. Good luck with that!

What we need to realize is that the relationships are the organization (de Geus), and they cannot be separated from the job. Just as a strong family or community is defined by the relationships of its members, organizations that live the longest do so because of the strength of their relationships. It’s only when the relationships have been truly nurtured that you can mobilize people to work in a coordinated fashion towards a common goal and get things done.

Making an impact in your organization requires that you do some mapping:

1. Think about the people you currently have relationships with and the nature of each


2. Identify the people (or groups) with whom you don’t have relationships

3. Determine where you need to strengthen relationships and where you need to initiate relationships.


“A trusting relationship is not a light switch that you just flip on”



Before diving into a discussion about whom we should strengthen or build relationships with, let’s take a step back to consider what kind of relationships exist at the workplace. Hermania Ibarra and Mark Hunter wrote a fantastic article in which they divide professional relationships into three categories: Operational, Personal, Strategic.

  • Operational relationships are the ones we have with people in order to do our job and reach our daily/weekly goals. You could say these are the relationships we need to have.

  • Personal relationships are the ones we choose to have, generally with our family, friends, and acquaintances. On a human level, the purpose of these relationships comes from a deeper need for love and belonging. However, they can benefit us professionally as well. (See below)

  • Strategic relationships are the least common, mainly because we don’t need to have them, but they can benefit us—and our organizations—tremendously. (See below)

These three categories of relationships can be used as a lens when looking at the question, “who should we form relationships with?” Of course, there is no correct answer; it very much depends on the overall context of your organization, the specific situation you are in, and what your goal is.

A question that people often ask are, “Is it more important to increase the number of relationships I have or the quality of the relationships I have that matters most? Social and political organizers often frame this question in terms of “Breadth” and “Depth” to guide their outreach planning. Let’s look at each of these factors, starting with depth – strengthening the quality or trust in an existing relationship.

Go Deeper

Many operational relationships—as well as personal and strategic—never go beyond a superficial level, or they flatten out at a certain level: you and a colleague know a bit about each other’s backgrounds (family structure, education, previous job, etc.), but you don’t know about each other’s childhoods, passions, struggles. This is especially common if you work at different locations and only communicate via e-mail, phone or video conference.

Operational relationships are very important for making our day-to-day work-life enjoyable. In fact, for many people, these relationships are one of the strongest motivating factors in their job. From a business perspective, these relationships are very important for getting things done correctly and on time. The more you know about a colleague’s family life, what his/her hobbies are, what drives him/her, what keeps this person up at night, the more you will understand why he/she behaves in a certain way or makes certain choices; all of which drastically reduces misunderstanding and significantly improves your collaboration.

If you want to strengthen the relationship, it’s important to continuously look for ways to get to know the person more deeply. Let’s be clear, a trusting relationship is not a light switch that you just flip on; it’s more like a dimmer with a wide spectrum of relationship strength that you can gradually increase over time. You be able to place each of your current work relationships at

In the story Empty Reply, Tom probably thinks of Andrew as “just a colleague” from Sales. If Tom took a little bit of time to get to know Andrew better, he would find out that Andrew spends three to four hours in his car every day, commuting to and from work, and therefore has very little time to read long e-mails. It would be much wiser to pick up the phone and call Andrew.

There are two ways to take a work relationship with a colleague beyond the superficial level (moving it closer to “work buddy” or “real buddy”):

  • to go through a challenging project together (and hopefully succeed)

  • to spend some time with each other, preferably outside of work: doing a fun activity you both enjoy, introducing your families to each other, etc.

If you believe that one (or some) of your relationships is a bit too shallow, then perhaps you should focus your attention here. This doesn’t mean you have to become best friends with your colleague, just one step closer. 

Types of work relationships: 

“That guy”: a colleague you pass by occasionally at the office, but you have no idea who he is.    

“That woman from accounting”: a colleague you exchange e-mails a handful of times a year in order to complete a necessary task. 

“Just a colleague”: a person you interact with frequently, but know little about.

“Work buddy”: a colleague with whom you work well and enjoy trading stories over lunch at work; you probably don’t spend much time together outside of work 

“Partner in crime”: a colleague with whom you’ve spent countless hours working on projects and/or overcoming challenges; maybe you get together outside of work

“Real buddy”: a colleague you like so much that you do activities together outside of work and hang out with on the weekends

*These relationship types are made up, not based on actual studies, and have plenty of overlap

Go Broader

Now let’s look at the importance of developing more relationships. Breadth of relationships can be thought of in two ways: quantity and diversity. If you’re trying to build a stronger community, then quantity of relationships is key.

Ask yourself this question: “If I were the CEO of my organization and I wanted to build a really strong community, what would I do?”

A smart CEO plans his/her schedule so as to visit all offices and sites as often as possible and ensures there is time in the schedule for formal meetings, as well as for social interaction with employees. This is sometimes referred to as “retail politics”: shaking hands and hugging babies (pre-Covid). As long as these visits aren’t perceived as “checking-up” or “controlling” things, but as a genuine desire to get to know people, they can have a tremendous impact on employee morale. Even if you’re not CEO, taking time during a visit to get to know colleagues makes a lasting impression and give people the feeling that they are part of community, rather than just an employee at a job.

Now, if you’re trying to build a stronger community and improve performance, then diversity is a game changer (learn more about diversity in the insight Catalyze Relationships). And this is where strategic relationships and personal relationships come into play.

For those of you who work in large organizations, there are many people whom you don’t “need” to talk to. These might be people in other functions, divisions, geographic locations, and on all levels of the organization.

There are many reasons for developing strategic relationships. For the organization, strategic relationships improve the sharing of practical information and best practices between different functions and divisions in an organization. This factor alone is often what separates average organizations from high-performing organizations. Many organizations invest time in creating structured processes and new technologies to help communication between diverse groups, but it will never be enough without the informal relationships that people build themselves (Wenger).

For you individually, strategic relationships can also be extremely valuable for getting information about what direction the company is taking, where investments will be made in the future, and who has the expertise on a particular topic. The more you know about these factors, the smarter you can be in selecting where to invest your time and energy. Far too many people do not take the time to get this valuable information and end up wasting time and energy on projects that are not in line with the strategic direction of the company.

Strategic relationships can also pull back the curtains, revealing who really makes the important decisions, who influences the important decision-makers, and how decisions are being made. Knowing who these people are is absolutely critical if you plan to engage people and get approval for projects in the future (see post on Stakeholder Mapping)

Last, these relationships lay the foundation of trust for organizing people around a specific project (see post on Engagement).

If you notice that you have become too insulated at work, talking to the same people and missing out on all the other interesting colleagues out there, then perhaps you should focus your attention on broadening your relationships (see tool What do I Say to Her? to get some tips on how).

In addition to developing strategic relationships, both you and your organization could potentially benefit from connecting with people in other organizations and industries. Many people fall into the trap of being too insular and losing track of what is happening out in the world.

Personal relationships with family members, friends, and acquaintances can often give us much needed outside perspective: valuable information about best practices, new market trends, and innovations that are taking place in other industries, as well as information about people to reach out to for more information. In addition, acquaintances can be fantastic sources of information about new job opportunities (even more so than close friends). So, if you find that you are spending most of your time working, and not paying enough attention to your family, friends, or acquaintances, remember that personal relationships can benefit you in more ways than one.

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To start building a community, all you have to do is initiate a single conversation with a colleague in another part of the organization. And there are great tools to help you do this (see my guide post "What Do I Say to Her?"). To get the ball rolling, just walk up to a colleague and say “Hi, I’m .... I work in the .... department. I would love to know more about who you are and what you do. When do you have 10-15 minutes for a chat?”

Reflection Questions

Do you generally focus more on depth or breadth of relationships at work?

What relationships do you have that also give a strategic benefit?

What personal relationships have benefitted you in your work?



To increase breadth (and build a community)

  1. Identify a colleague who you don't need to work with

  2. Take advantage of any event: meeting, conference, organized dinner, etc. to get to know him/her

  3. If it feels awkward to just approach this person, find out if you know someone who could possibly introduce you to this person?

  4. Get tips on what to say in the tool “What do I say to her?”

To deepen a relationship (and build trust)

  1. Identify someone you already interact with at work, but know very little about

  2. When could you speak with this person to get to know him/her better? (e.g. before a meeting starts, during a coffee break, etc.)

  3. Ask about his/her weekend, holiday, family, hobbies, etc.

Related Articles


understanding relationships 


Why you should want to get to know people at work


learn about stortytelling


How storytelling can help build trust in a new relationship



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