March 14

How to cultivate relationships at work


I looked at Fiona (not her real name), quietly impressed.

For Valentine’s Day that year, she bought cupcakes for every colleague. That probably set her back $46, but gained her thousands in terms of trust.

You might think that this is a little too much to do, as a colleague.

But Fiona ended up being given bigger responsibilities, and was on track for a quick promotion until she eventually chose to move to another company.

If you want to grow your career, it’s not just good enough to be good at it.

Being liked is a must, not just for fun

I confess. I used to think that being liked was optional. It seemed cool to be self sufficient and independent, and to not care about what people thought about you.

Until I realised that being disliked was even harder to manage.

I was heavily disliked in my first two jobs. I didn’t bother about managing my relationships and would do things that were not well liked.

For example, when a colleague didn’t do his job, I would report it to our manager.

Naturally, I soon had a WhatsApp group formed around me, called ‘No-John’.

Everyone wanted to complain about me, and no one wanted to deal with me. Naturally, I got sacked.

Let’s start with the basics, the principles that will move things forward.

How to be liked, first starts with your character
How to be liked, first starts with your character

Being liked is about being approachable, not agreeable

Often we think that being liked is about people-pleasing. Telling our colleagues what they want so that they can be happy.

It’s not. If you don’t want to be walked over, you need to be able to hold your ground when someone disagrees with you.

In my first job, I saw how Fiona did this many times. She might not agree with how something was done. But she would not openly criticise the person. Rather, she would have a word with him in private, so that she could save his face.

Being approachable is about being open, so that colleagues are willing to come towards you when they need any help.

It’s not just by telling people

‘you can approach me if you need anything.’

Rather, its about taking the initiative to help, even when it seems you’re not needed.

Being liked is about being trust-able

In Botelho and Powell’s landmark book ‘The CEO Next Door’, they studied the factors was most likely to determine a person’s rise to the plum position of CEO.

What would you guess was the one quality that consistently predicted this, out of everything else?

Charisma, like Obama?

Or perhaps creativity, like Steve Jobs?


It was this boring quality called reliability.

It was doing what one said, and saying what one did.

It’s not that easy a quality. Because it means talking less, and doing more.

FNS singapore SPOT training teaches you how to make better meetings
You might be used to working hard, but you also need to work smart by being good friends with your colleagues.

It’s hard because it means that you have to execute on what you promise, rather than leaving it to chance.

But it also helps people to trust you because they see that you’re willing to execute on your commitments.

They start liking you because you’re reliable.

Being reliable in the small things

It’s often just about the small things, like being early. Turning up at the place and time you agreed to.

When these ‘implicit contracts’ are frequently broken, we end up seeing that the people you make your promises to are less willing to trust you.

Being liked is about showing kindness in the small things

More recently, I was on an exchange programme. I saw firsthand the demonstration of what it meant to ‘buy’ liveability.

Whilst I don’t think it was his intent, it was definitely cleverly done.

One can say it was manipulative, but you can also choose to see it as kindness.

That evening, as we were rushing out a presentation for the final day, one delegate chose to buy bottled drinks for everyone. It wasn’t expensive.

Each bottle might have cost $1.30.

But it bought him a lot of goodwill. Suddenly, everyone was motivated to work even harder.

I’m not asking you to bribe people when you need something done. But I think it’s useful to show kindness in practical ways, such as by being generous.

How do you like someone? Be there for them

Think of likability as a bank.

You need to make constant deposits before you start withdrawing.

Thus, perhaps the most important part that determines likability is being there for someone, even before they need you.


You can always call me when you need help,

is not enough.

You can’t just be there when people need you but you might need to better grow your ability to predict when people need you.

Because we know humans. They are not likely to reach out for help, unless they are very familiar with the idea of being vulnerable.

But being there for them, by spending regular time with them, such as by eating lunch and dinner with them, is terribly important.

In my first job, I used to think of it as an absolute waste of my time.

After all, weren’t there better ways to spend my time?

But I soon realised that these lunches were ways whereby people negotiated power, and gave power.

It was where all the alliances were made, and how they were broken.

By refusing to eat with them, I had stupidly given up the chance to build a better relationship with them.

As much as there are many hacks and shortcuts to building relationships, one of the best principles is still:

spending time.

If you fail to spend time with them, it will be hard to see why they will trust you more.

The lunch together is not time wasted

2 years after my first job, I moved on.

But the last 6 months were possibly the worst of my adult working life.

I would enter the office, say no more than 20 words, including hi and bye, before leaving the office.

Having been issued with a performance improvement plan, I had mentally checked out of the office.

I didn’t know what else to do to grow in terms of being able to build better relationships.

I just felt lost, confused, and desperate to leave.

One of the most heart-wrenching moments came in July 2021, 4 months before I left my job.

As I walked past the adjacent office, I heard sounds of laughter. A fragrant aroma of fish soup filled my nostrils, and I continued following the smell.

Peeking through the curtains, I saw my colleagues gathered around the table.

Save to say, I wasn’t invited.

And with good reason too.

I had turned them down most times when they wanted to go out for lunch together. And they had learnt to stop asking.

Sure, I had gained time, but I had lost significant relationships at work.

The small things matter even whilst they might take time.

Don’t miss the small flowers along the road of life, whilst you look for the fancier things in life.



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