The Ten Commandments of Great Work Relationships

Suppose I asked you, »What’s the single most important change you could make to improve your health?« What do you think the answer would be? Quit smoking? Stop drinking? Exercise more? It turns out that the biggest predictor for longevity is the quality of our relationships. People who have great relationships live eight years longer. That’s a lot. 

Whether you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day or whether you have bad relationships: The impact on your health is the same. So how can you build great relationships at work? You will see that a great work relationship is very much like a good marriage. Like a good marriage… without the sex. Whether we’re falling in love or creating a great team, it all comes down to a chemical called oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical that is released when we have great relationships. It’s released when a baby is born. It is released when people have sex. And it is released when people bond and create trust in a business setting. 

Oxytocin has a huge impact on how people behave in any social setting. To study oxytocin’s effects, scientists typically administer it as a nasal spray. When applied prior to a negotiation, for example, a dose of oxytocin can increase a negotiator’s generosity by as much as 80 percent. Does this mean that we can buy love after all? Before you run to your local pharmacy, consider the fact that your brain already produces it. There are proven ways you can enhance oxytocin levels naturally. I like to call them the ten commandments of great relationships. 

1.      Meetings matter

Research in the US has shown that when a waitress casually touches a customer on the shoulder for 2 to 4 seconds, she will receive a bigger tip. The impact of touch is never casual. 

I’m not telling you to touch the people you work with. But it does make a difference to meet someone live and in person instead of just virtually. So, make a point of meeting up face to face — at least once at the very beginning of your relationship. 

2.     Get things right in the beginning

When I met my husband, he lived in his idea of the perfect bachelor pad. Every single piece of furniture beautifully matched all the rest. When I moved in, I replaced his artwork with my own colorful – and not very tasteful – artwork. Think red and pink hearts on a white canvas meet the egg chair and USM Haller. Why? I wanted to make a point. I didn’t want to feel like a guest in my own home. I had to claim my territory. Otherwise, he might have continued with his life as if nothing had changed.

There is a magical window at the beginning of a relationship when you can establish the way you want things to be. Oxytocin levels skyrocket at the very beginning of a new relationship, making our brain more flexible and open to change. 

But the brain is a lazy couch potato. Once you have established your routines, it’s not going to give up on them so easily. If you want your relationship to work, you need to get things right from the very beginning. Use this magical window. Don’t waste it!

3.     20:1 in good times, 5:1 in bad times

Have you heard of the »Love Lab«? It’s a place you can go to sort things out with your spouse. You get hooked up to all kinds of devices that measure your heartbeat, the electrical conductivity of your skin, and other indicators for stress. You are asked to have a conversation with your partner for ten minutes while being video-taped. And then the researchers can tell you whether you will divorce or stay together with a confidence level of over 90 percent! 

So how do they do it? They’ve boiled down their observations and insights into a simple ratio: 20:1. Couples who have 20 times more positive interactions than negative ones will stay together. (During a fight, the ratio needs to be at least 5:1.) 

Why does this work? Because the brain has a built-in negativity bias. It processes negative interactions more strongly than positive ones. 

How does this apply in a business setting? Of course, you need to be able to speak the truth and convey negative information or feedback when necessary, but overall, you want to be a source of pleasure, not pain. 

4.     Relax

When I worked in management consulting, I was once put in charge of a gigantic Excel model. Somewhere in that model was a mistake. 

My boss was stressed and anxious about it, and constantly yelled at me: »Find the mistake! If you don’t fix it, the client will blow their top, and you’ll be fired!« Needless to say, I never found the mistake. Her feedback only made me stressed.

When we are stressed, the brain releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol in turn represses the production of oxytocin. Empathy, altruism, and our drive for connection all go down when we are stressed. We never connected well with our client in that project. 

What can we learn from this? Reduce stress levels. You are not going to establish great relationships when you are chronically stressed. How can you achieve it? Work out, get enough sleep, and increase your personal autonomy. People high up in the hierarchy work long hours, but they don’t feel as stressed since they are the boss and can do whatever they want. 

5.     Take your team hostage

Perhaps you’ve heard of the »Stockholm Syndrome.« This term was first used by the media in 1973 when four hostages were taken during a bank robbery in Sweden. When the hostages were released six days later, they actually defended their captors and even refused to testify against them in court. 

What was going on here? When something unusual and exciting happens, and that includes some stressful events, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released in the brain. And dopamine triggers the release of oxytocin. 

How can you use this at work? Surprise the people around you. Go on an adventure together. Get out of the day-to-day rut together, and it will strengthen your bonds. 

6.     Thou shalt not lie

When you think of Bill Clinton, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For most people, it’s Monica Lewinsky – and how Bill Clinton lied in public: »I did not have sexual relations with that woman.« 

You can build trust for years. It only takes a second to destroy it. 

My advice to you is simple: Don’t lie to the people around you. People can handle the truth. I once prepared a workshop series for a big multinational company that had to let a lot of people go. I’m talking about big townhall-style meetings with 600 people at a time. And you have to tell them that their jobs are not safe. How do you do it? Tell them the truth. And tell them quickly. 

When the police come to your door to tell you that a close relative has died, they don’t start with small talk about the weather. When you have bad news, skip the »feedback sandwich« — first a layer of pleasant information, then the bad news, and then another nice layer to wrap it up. People can handle the truth. 

7.     Put a ring on it

I asked the regional head of an international professional services firm whether he performed any sort of rituals with his clients. He gave me a weird look and said, »Well…, not really.« I said: »Okay, so what about your family? Do you celebrate birthdays with a cake and gifts?« – »Of course.« – »Did you propose to your wife with a ring?« – Of course.« – »Did you do anything special when you got married?« – »Of course.«  

Research shows that rituals and ceremonies make our oxytocin levels soar. We have many rituals in our private lives – marriages, holidays, birthday parties. But in the business world, rituals are still an underleveraged resource. 

As our conversation went on, we discovered that he did have lots of rituals in place after all: With one CEO, he always goes running; with another other, he always meets at the Oktoberfest. He had just never thought of these routines as rituals. But when he took a closer look, he realized he had established all kinds of traditions with his clients. It does matter whether you send your colleagues a handwritten note or an email. It does matter whether you go hiking together or not. Create rituals, it will strengthen your bonds.

8.     Ask for help

Most people try to make a good first impression. But research shows that when you spill coffee at your first meeting, people will like you more.

When we show vulnerability, oxytocin is released, and we connect. When I did my TED talk a few months ago, I did the classical »TED reveal« of sharing a personal story at the very beginning, since this helps the audience to connect with the speaker. 

How can you do this in a business setting? Share a personal story, ask for advice, ask for feedback. You don’t have to be perfect. Just be yourself. 

9.     Find common ground

Oxytocin will help you build great relationships. But there is also a dark side to it. Oxytocin is the mechanism behind bias, discrimination, and racism. When you build a great relationship with someone, chances are high that you will exclude other people. People tend to think and act in terms of »us« versus »them.« Every politician knows this.  

How can you overcome this? Find common ground, even if it’s just a shared interest in cars, fashion, or soccer. 

10.  Be fair

Economic theory has been telling us for ages that people maximize profit. This is not true. People maximize fairness, not profit. Economic theory is based on the assumption of the »homo economicus« when in reality, we are »homo reciprocans«. 

 In the past, social networks were essential to our survival. That drove an urge to cooperate and implanted a fear of rejection. Life may have changed dramatically since those primitive days, but our brains haven’t. That’s why violations of trust and fairness are still perceived by the brain as life-threatening.   

In fact, research shows that people are willing to pay to punish an unfair player, even to the point of losing all of their money. Those of you who are lawyers may have seen this behavior in action.  

 The relevant lesson for business: When you negotiate, you will benefit from creating a win-win situation, whenever possible. If you deliberately rip off the other person, you may gain a small profit in the short term, but you will win more by establishing a long-term relationship. 

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