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Five Ways to Nurture Your Work Relationships

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When romance is in the air, by all means, treat your date to a lovely night on the town. But don’t forget that your relationships with colleagues need to be nurtured as well.

Here are five pieces of advice from Kellogg School faculty members on improving your negotiation skills and managing conflict at work.

1. Don’t Let Culture Get in the Way

One thing to ask yourself when you are faced with conflict at work is whether the issue is actually cultural, says Jeanne Brett, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

Everything from differences in how decisions are made to what “yes” means can come into play. Being able to take what may seem like a problem-employee issue and reframe it as cultural can be powerful.

“I see that it’s not just you trying to be difficult,” Brett says of the change in perspective. “It’s rather you acting as you normally would, given your culture. So if you can label it as ‘cultural,’ then you can begin to say, ‘Okay, now I understand where they’re coming from, let’s see how I can deal with it.’”

Brett’s advice is to try to be “culturally metacognitive”—and try to hire people who are, as well. This type of individual has his or her own multicultural experience and is likely to look at confusing or problematic behavior and wonder if the underlying problem is actually cultural.

2. See Your Arguments Through Someone Else’s Eyes

Not all workplace conflicts are cultural. One way to diffuse other tensions is to look at an argument from a neutral, outside perspective, according to Eli Finkel, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg and a professor of psychology at Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences.

In one study Finkel surveyed 120 romantic couples, asking them every four months to describe their most significant fight during that time. They also rated various parts of their relationships—satisfaction, love, intimacy, commitment, etc. After a year, the results reflected that most couples experience less satisfaction with their relationship over time.

In the second year of the study, however, half the couples received instructions to do an additional roughly seven-minute exercise every four months. They described their biggest conflict through the eyes of a third party, identified obstacles, and described how the couple might overcome them. That’s when the trend changed. These couples reported more satisfaction with their relationships, not less.

Though the couples that completed the extra task experienced just as much conflict, “the intervention not only made people happier in their marriages, it made them happier with their lives in general. If workforce interventions have similar results, that’s an astounding return on a 21-minute annual investment,” Finkel says.

3. Improve Your Negotiations

Negotiation is a huge part of any business relationship. But how do you get what you want without giving up something else that is important to you?

In a new book written with Stanford professor Margaret Neale, Thomas Lys, a professor emeritus of accounting information and management at Kellogg, has identified a number of ways to do just that. Two tips: mitigate your emotional response by trying to understand why the person across the table is behaving the way he is; and determine whether your preferences are actually conflicting.

4. No Really, Negotiate

Generally, women are less willing to negotiate, according to Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. “They’re worried about the backlash,” she says.

And unfortunately, their worries are not without reason. But Thompson advises that women not be deterred and, in particular, that they embrace more ambiguous negotiation situations, such as the chance to redefine their role in an organization.

“One of my rules is never to ask, ‘Is this negotiable?’ because that’s a yes or no question. It’s easy for people to say, ‘No, it’s not. Next question.’”

5. Turn the Lights Down Low

According to research by Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, bright light can make us a little hot under the collar. This is true physically—we feel warmer in a brightly lit room than in a dimmer one at the same temperature—as well as emotionally.

In one study, participants were shown a script for a commercial that featured a man honking at someone while driving, cursing at someone in a parking lot, and rushing past a pregnant woman. Participants viewed the man’s behavior as more aggressive when the lights in the room in which they were sitting were bright.

Bright light also amplifies positive reactions—female models were rated as more attractive to participants sitting in a brightly lit room than in a dimly lit one.

A light’s brightness “changes the way we perceive others,” Labroo says, and “could even make a difference in negotiations.”

So if you want to sway others with an impassioned plea, consider a place flooded with light. If you want cooler heads to prevail, however, hit the dimmer switch.

Susan Cosier is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. This piece was previously published in Kellogg Insight. It is republished here with permission of the Kellogg School of Management.

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