Rules to Improve Work Relationships

Getting along with co-workers can go a long way to making your job more enjoyable
By Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton
August 5, 2019 Updated: January 31, 2020

Few places have as much impact on your mental and physical health as your workplace. And few aspects of your workplace affect you as much as your work relationships.

When you are considering joining, you want to know if your future associates will accept you as a member of their team. Will they provide you a helping hand when you need one and appreciate you for your contributions and efforts? Will you get along with them, including the ones you may not like?

You know the ones I mean. You cringe at the sight of them. Just the thought of having to interact with them can make you feel uneasy. You would rather do anything else, but you can’t, because a part of your job is to try to get along with whomever you work with.

Difficult work relationships are the primary source of dissatisfaction and conflict in the workplace. Failed relations can be awkward, dysfunctional to the business, and harmful to your health. Some people can transform a good job into misery.

One of my old HR bosses once told me, “This HR work would be pretty good if it wasn’t for the people. Anytime you put two folks together and pay them to get something done, there’s conflict.” This is why it’s important to be selective about where you work, which raises another issue.

No matter how selective your job choices are, all work relationships are subject to change. You may not always have the opportunity to choose your boss or colleagues. It becomes necessary in any job to get along with all types of people. Here’s one solution that has survived the test of time.

The late psychologist William Schutz gave us what he called his Theory of Interpersonal Relationships. It states that people need people. To get along without so much of the inevitable conflict, you set up ground rules for your interactions.

You need to figure out how others need to be treated by you. Ask them. Then you have to let them know how you need to be treated by them. Tell them. Your needs are interpersonal and span three dimensions that can affect your ability to be content in your relationships.


All people need to establish and maintain meaningful connections with others. We want and need to feel accepted, understood, and worthwhile. When our needs for inclusion aren’t met, we feel lonely, left out and unwanted.

People with a low need for inclusion tend to be introverted or withdrawn. They may not appreciate your efforts to include them, if that’s not how they prefer to be treated. People who have a high need for inclusion tend to be outgoing and engaging. They may not appreciate when you leave them out or exclude them.


All people need to make decisions and influence events and others around them. At other times, we need to submit and allow others to have this control over us.  When our needs for control aren’t met, we become anxious.

colleagues fist bumping
It becomes necessary in any job to get along with all types of people. (Shutterstock)

People with a low need to control are okay with someone else taking the lead. They may not appreciate your efforts to make or encourage them to take the lead, if that’s not how they prefer to be treated. People who have a high need to control prefer to take charge. They may not appreciate when you prefer to lead when they want to.


All people need opportunities to express and receive affection.  We want and need to establish close ties and relationships. But at other times, we also need privacy.  When our needs for affection aren’t met, we feel unfulfilled and neglected or otherwise exposed and vulnerable.

People with a low need for affection are okay with being a loner. They may not appreciate your efforts to give them affection, if that’s not how they prefer to be treated. People who have a high need for affection need to establish good ties with those they associate with. They may not appreciate when you resist their efforts to share their affection.

This framework for understanding interpersonal needs can provide a way for colleagues to share with each other whether those needs are low or high.

Then each must be willing to flex and accommodate the other’s needs. The idea is to keep working on improving your relationships until you get it right.

According to Schutz, the most successful relationships form between people who aren’t extreme in any of their three interpersonal needs. Here were his suggested rules to avoid extreme behaviors.

Inclusion: It’s better to be sociable, adaptable, and willing to include and be included.

Control: It’s better to respond democratically in the midst of a struggle. Be flexible and willing to submit when it’s advisable and worthwhile to do so.

Affection: Be personable and engaging, but also prepared to grant others the space and privacy they may need.

To discover if your interpersonal needs are low or high, the FIRO-B assessment is recommended. You can learn more and take the assessment by visiting


Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training, provider. He holds a master’s degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is an originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment. Follow him on Twitter

Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton