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How to Build and Humanize Work Relationships

Humaning Relationships Take Two

When I look back on my career and think about my best work experiences where I felt most energized, productive and engaged, the common denominator was the people I worked with and the quality of our relationships.   

The past two years of uncertainty and remote/hybrid work, we’ve become disconnected, overly transactional and less relational. We check in on the work, not the person. And without the opportunity to bond and connect, many have lost sight of the importance of building trusting work relationships. 

Why are positive work relationships so important?  

We are literally wired to connect with people. Neuroscience tells us that the brain releases oxytocin (the hormone linked to trustworthiness and motivation) in response to social contact.  Henry Cloud, the noted leadership expert, psychologist and author, says for our brains to function property and for people to thrive, we need connection. “Relationships not only root and ground us, but they also fuel higher performance.”    

An article from gives us further evidence that positive social relationships increase employee satisfaction, engagement, productivity, motivation. It even boosts our physical health.    

Most importantly, positive relationships allow us to build trust with each other. And trust is foundational to high-performing teams. If you can’t trust one another, you simply cannot deliver results.  

But Isn’t It About the Work?  

The counter-argument goes like this: “At work we should focus on the work not on relationships.” The work is always important, but what we often miss is, relationships are how the work gets done.  

Relationships are built on connections that happen in those spontaneous non-work moments where we get to know one another as people.   

As Marc Brackett, author of Permission to Feel, says, “The professional friendships born of personal moments make our work easier and more pleasant.”  

If recent times have taught us anything, it’s that we’ve become hyper-aware of the need for more connection, more empathy and more real human moments.  As leaders, we’re just not sure how to navigate our way back to humanizing those work relationships, creating connection, and building trust.  

Our relational muscles have atrophied and the best way to get them back in shape is to take action. We offer four ideas that leaders can put into play.      

  1. Share Your Stories

How well do you know the people you work with?  Guy Raz, creator of the popular podcast How I Built This, says, “You don’t know someone until you know their story.”   

As part of their recruitment process, our friends at Smart Savvy, a marketing, communications and creative recruitment company, invites all candidates to complete an exercise called “So you were born, then what?” It asks them to share 5 –7 milestone moments in their life that shape who they are today. The instructions are deliberately vague so people can take it where they want. Some keep it strictly professional. Others go deep and personal, sharing triumphs, hardships, stories of resilience, heartache, and equal amounts of heart-warming and tough life lessons.   

Want to get to know each other better? Sharing stories is an enlightening exercise for teams to do. Well in advance of any sharing, start by inviting team members to think about their 5-7 highlights and craft a five-minute story. Then create an opportunity for people to share their stories.  Make it voluntary and safe and get input on the best way to share.  

Stories humanize us and allow us to see the whole person.  They help us connect, uncover strengths and appreciate the experiences and perspectives that others bring to the table.   

What would it do for you and your team to share your stories?  

  1. Create the Conditions for Better Conversations 

Leaders we work with recognize that more of a relational approach to work is the path to connect people and build trust, but there’s uncertainty on how to get started.  

We offer that it starts with a commitment to get to know people personally through authentic and vulnerable conversations.    

As part of the Building Trusting Relationships Workshop we run, we give teams the opportunity to start these conversations in a 10-minute exercise. We break people into small groups of 3 – 4 and provide a list of questions, some of which are more vulnerable than others. Each person is invited to choose a question they would feel comfortable answering within the small breakout.  

This short and simple team experience is profound. In just a few minutes they’ve learned things about their colleagues they never knew, and they’ve had a different kind of conversation. Shared vulnerability builds trust, understanding and connection.  Small conversations help the team members see each other on a deeper, more human level and when we can do that, we can build better relationships that get the work done.     

And small conversations lead to big conversations.    

How can you as a leader create the space for better conversations?  

  1. Plan Non-Work Moments at Work 

Many leaders in our network are intentional about forging positive work relationships.  

Some build human moments into their daily huddles, like asking people for two words to express how they are feeling that day. Others invite people to share headlines on whatever is on their minds, such as accomplishments, family updates, or personal news.  Some schedule a weekly 30-minute team Zoom meet up with a ‘no-work-talk’ rule, and still others connect one-to-one for coffee chats.   

We are now in a place where the hybrid workplace can provide opportunities to bring teams together IRL for social events. Other workplaces are intentional about maximizing the in-person interaction the days people are in the office, whether that is team lunches or one-to-one meetings.   

Whether it’s lunching together, happy hour, team trivia, or creating space to connect in other ways, positive social interactions and laughter connect and engage people.     

When was the last time you and your team really LOL’d together?   

  1. Maintain Your Rituals 

This was the sage advice that Erica Keswin, an expert on working human and author of the book Bring Your Human to Work, shared with our community in a webinar back in 2020.  

According to Erica, rituals give us a sense of psychological safety, belonging, and a connection to purpose. If rituals are part of your culture, Erica suggests finding ways to keep them alive.     

She shared how Knotch, a digital media company, kept their ritual of a weekly show–and–tell, which can be anything from introducing a new employee, highlighting a new strategy, or having a team member recap a recent adventure.    

If you are curious about how you can establish meaningful rituals as part of your culture, read Erica’s latest book: Rituals Roadmap: The Human Way to Transform Everyday Routines into Workplace Magic 

Rituals keep us connected.   

What positive rituals can you re-invent or create to help your team stay connected? 

Strong relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams, and we build those relationships by trusting one another. And we do that by getting to know people as people, listening to their stories, understanding what’s important to them and appreciating their contributions.   

What’s one thing you can put into motion this week to help you and your team get to know each other more personally?  

Looking to build trust and forge more team connection?  Talk to us about getting started.  

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