Peer-coworker relationships refer to relationships between employees at the same hierarchical level with no formal authority over one another. This type of workplace relationship receives little attention compared to managing up and down. Yet, the quality and effectiveness of our relationships at work may significantly impact our job satisfaction, performance, engagement, and retention.

In my work with leaders, I frequently notice that peers assess their colleagues differently in 360 assessments than their managers and direct reports. They tend to be more constructive in their views and, sometimes, less flattering than other raters. This article results from my interest in expanding my understanding of this working relationship by compiling valuable insights from credible sources and ideas on managing your peers effectively.

Why It Matters – 

We spend way more time with our peers at work than with our bosses or family. Peer relationships perform many functions, including mentoring, information exchange, social support, control, and influence. Studies have confirmed relationships between employee satisfaction and self-esteem when employees have positive relationships with peers. The literature describes four benefits of having positive relationships with peers. 

  1. Peer Mentoring – It is a competitive advantage to access peer mentoring networks to learn the ropes of getting results in the organization from those with a solid reputation. Peer mentoring also helps employees to stay in the loop of significant developments for more effective decision-making and maintain visibility across the organization.
  2. Information Exchange – Peers are essential sources of information exchanges, especially when someone joins an organization. They can help newcomers to adjust to the culture much faster. Thy can also provide on-time feedback on task performance, and help navigating the social maze to get things done.
  3. Power, Control & Influence – Peers develop informal and overt forms of power and control outside of the formal organizational hierarchy that impact the social system at work. For example, certain members can influence a team’s willingness to cooperate or achieve consensus over certain decisions from the chain of command. They also form alliances that can shape the direction and speed of change.
  4. Social Support – Multiple sources of stress derive from navigating the organization’s emotional system. Work overload or underload, role ambiguity, conflictive or toxic bosses, uncertainty, job insecurity, unfair competition, and bullying and harassment are some issues employees navigate. Access to enough peer support can alleviate and mitigate the negative impact of organizational stressors.

Just as peer relationships offer a buffer and support system to deal with job-related stress, they can also be a source of relationship stress. 

Common Causes of Relational Stress at Work 

We all strive for universal needs, such as control, safety, certainty, approval, and belonging. Our social system at work can offer an environment conducive to the satisfaction of such needs or not. We are social creatures by nature, longing for a sense of belonging. We want to feel part of a tribe.

A strong, felt sense of belonging lowers anxiety and peers provide that safety blanket in times of turmoil. On the flip side, not feeling that we have approval and belonging can lead to reactive behaviors like ‘political’ entanglements, dysfunctional behaviors, resistance, sabotage, low self-esteem, losing confidence, feeling isolated or excluded, etc., with negative consequences for our emotional health. People who work in toxic environments take the toxicity home because stress hormones impact the body many hours after experiencing a triggering event. 

Frequent Peer Forms of Relational Dysfunction at Work 

  • Harassment and Bullying
  • Unfair treatment and discrimination
  • Manipulation
  • Triangulation
  • Holding information
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Unfair competition
  • Microaggressions
  • Favoritism
  • Rivalries
  • Others

There are ways to increase your ability to manage lateral relationships at work. Here are some ideas extracted from various leadership frameworks:

  1. Learn to maneuver your work social system by noticing how to get things done sideways. Who are the significant gatekeepers who control the flow of resources, information, and decisions? Who tend to guide and support? Who are the blockers opposing new ideas?
  2. Assess your peer relationships by identifying the connection’s strength, trust, and respect. Consider listing key stakeholders and identifying the strongest and weakest links—detailing which ones work okay but could work better and which need improvement.
  3. Increase your influencing skills by proactively seeking to build or rebuild critical relationships at the peer level, being closer enough. Find common ground to ignite more cooperation and, ultimately, interdependence.
  4. Make consistent deposits into peer’s emotional bank accounts by practicing Stephen Covey’s six steps: Understand the individual; Attending to the little things; Keeping commitments; Clarifying expectations; Showing personal integrity, and Sincerely apologize when you make a mistake.
  5. Tackle misunderstandings early, keeping conflicts as small and concrete as possible. Separate the person from the situation and use “I Statements” to assertively take stands making effective requests. Avoid telling others about your disagreements with peers. Avoid creating triangles involving your manager or other people at work.
  6. Self-Regulate more to increase your resilience by practicing self-care and stress reduction techniques to maintain calm despite resistance and opposition.

Peers sometimes test our interpersonal and relationship management skills at work. Scholars from the Resilient Leadership framework talk about the ‘hidden chemistry’ of organizations, made of the maze of relationship patterns that can enable or hinder organizational success. Navigating informal power outside the chain of command is a challenge and an opportunity that deserves a strategic approach. 

There is a high return on investment when lateral relationships are working because they are the glue that connects units, businesses, functions, and even regions for organizations. Better peer relationships lead to more cooperation, better quality of information, and exchange of ideas opening doors to innovation, efficiencies, productivity, well-being, and job satisfaction.

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