To be a good teammate, do you need to develop close friendships with your coworkers or find a “work spouse”? Not necessarily, according to Lakshmi Rengarajan, the Director of Workplace Connection for the coworking company WeWork. Friendship is a great outcome of a good working relationship, but it shouldn’t be a requirement. Instead, Rengarajan believes, effective teamwork in the workplace is likely to occur when colleagues simply strive to understand one another.
Rengarajan is no stranger to helping people connect with someone they’ve just met. As the former director of brand strategy and event design at online dating service Match.com, she coordinated in-person events designed to help people get past those dreaded, awkward first encounters. At WeWork, Rengarajan is an expert in encouraging colleagues to recognize the value in more fully seeing, hearing and understanding one another. In other words, it’s her job to help facilitate and advise on how to relate to others in the workplace, especially those who may have a different work style or perspective from you.
Another obstacle to making those kinds of connections? In everything from dating to working, we all spend so much time in impersonal digital spaces. So we asked Rengarajan to share some of her top insights for moving beyond initial interactions to strengthen teamwork in the workplace. Here’s what she told us.
“Companies spend tons of time and money helping their employees meet but don’t put enough thought and resources towards helping employees connect. Understanding this difference is key.”
LR: It’s probably one of the most overlooked distinctions and a great question. Meeting is characterized by the surface-level interactions you have with someone, those initial conversations—introductions, name exchanges, title exchanges—that are often associated with small talk.
Meeting is often characterized as a bit draining—that’s why people don’t like networking events. It can feel transactional, like you’re interviewing. And if you talk to someone about dating, one of the things they describe is how exhausting it is. A lot of that exhaustion comes from so many interactions happening at the “meeting” level that don’t necessarily evolve to connecting. Meeting does have its place and purpose, and it’s not something we should get rid of. But we need to understand and recognize that connecting is different.
Connecting is often described as energizing. It’s when you really get a glimpse of who someone is beyond their name, title or headline. It’s usually a deeper, more revealing interaction. It’s how you can become closer to someone after a three-day hiking trip than someone you’ve known for years.
Companies spend tons of time and money helping their employees meet but don’t put enough thought and resources towards helping employees connect. Understanding this difference is key. In the workplace, setting the stage for connection takes a bit of strategy and planning. Happy hours are probably the most common example of an effort that’s great for helping people to meet but not necessarily connect.
You should be asking yourself: What kind of information do you want people to exchange that goes beyond the basics? What do you want people to know about each other?
LR: So, I’m going to push back a little bit. Thinking about it as a social circle isn’t necessarily what connection is about. Sometimes it’s easy to mistake the importance of connection with friendship. I don’t think you need to be friends with your coworkers, and I think putting that pressure on people is probably not the best idea, because friendship implies loyalty; it implies an investment of time—it implies brunch on weekends.
You do want to get to know your colleagues beyond the basics because you want to have more context. Context is great, because you want to know if somebody traveled somewhere at some point, or someone had experience working in a restaurant, or if someone has struggled with something or is really good at something. The more context you have, the more you can understand how to form a team or who might be really valuable on a project.
LR: I like to ask, “What’s something that you didn’t like at first that you like now?” I like that question because it gives you a sneak peek into someone’s willingness and ability to change their mind.
That question is also interesting because it builds a narrative arc for someone. The natural response that that kind of question elicits is inherently more revealing: “I didn’t like country music, but then I went to a concert or heard a set of lyrics and now I actually kind of like it.” When you ask a question like that, a person can’t just respond with, “Oh, country music.” They’re compelled to provide more context.
From there you can get to deeper questions, like “Who is someone that you didn’t like at first that you do now?” or “What’s a belief you used to have that you no longer hold?” This framing helps someone tell a story about themselves. In order to answer the question, they’ll usually need more than one word. A simple “yes”or “no” won’t suffice.
LR: One hundred percent. When I used to run an offline dating business, a lot of people said, “Oh, you must only get extroverts to come to your events.” But it was actually the opposite. The events attracted just as many introverts. Introverts also want to share stories; they just go about it differently.
We talk a lot about storytelling and its importance, but to me, connection is more about what I call story setting. Story setting is about creating the space and a prompt for someone else to tell you their story. While I think storytelling is essential, I think we talk too much about it and not enough about story setting.
Ideas for story-setting questions to ask your colleagues
- What’s something you’ve been meaning to learn? There’s an inherent tension in this question. It’s not something that you want to learn—that’s too ambition-focused. This question is designed to uncover something in someone’s life that will very likely extract a story.
- What was one positive thing about your upbringing? This is an inclusive question. The question we tend to ask is “What’s your family like?” or “Are you close with your family?” Not everyone grew up with a family, but everyone has had an upbringing, and zeroing in on one positive aspect can pull out an insightful backstory.
LR: One topic that I think is really good, especially when you’re trying to get to know someone, is asking them to share who their mentors were. It’s a humanizing reminder that we are the aggregate of all the other people that took the time to teach us along the way. So whether you’re a CEO or a junior associate, someone has helped shape you.
LR: I think everyone’s on a default setting right now. We’ve adopted all this tech, but we haven’t necessarily thought through [questions like]:
- Is this the right tech?
- How will these tools impact relationships?
- What are the best tools and uses based on what we have to do?
One of the norms my core team established was to never strategize in a shared doc. Strategy is always done in person with a whiteboard where everyone can see each other.
LR: In the workplace, we are judging people based on their title or where they went to school or what company they work for. It’s no different than dating, and you’re taking these sort of superficial data points and drawing a complete picture of someone.
What you need to do is get beyond that.
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