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  • Writer's pictureKaren Thrall

You don’t have to be best friends with your co-workers

Updated: Feb 20

Is there a type of person you would never be in a relationship with, but you feel obligated? Is there a colleague you avoid and, if it were up to you, would be happy if you never interacted with this person again?

Whether it’s Frank from Finance, Mary from Marketing, Ellen from Editing or Oscar from Operations, it’s not really about that specific person, rather it’s about that “type of person”.

Until you can figure out how to build a respectful relationship with the individual who is the bane of your existence, you will continue to get bothered. Moreover, the person who annoys you now will be replaced by someone similar down the road; and everything that annoys you now will start all over again, leaving you wondering, “Why does this keep happening to me?” 

In other words, you will continue to have this type of person in your life until you know your limitations and are confident in your boundaries.

When a relationship isn’t going very well, you have options:

  1. You can remain patient and give the person a second chance or ten thousand chances, and accept the relationship as it is.

  2. You can focus on their positive qualities and pretend you’re not annoyed, and stuff it deep down inside you.

  3. You can let go of trying to change the other person because you can only change yourself; and focus on what you need to do for your health and wellbeing.

  4. You can accept that your personalities are not a natural fit and will take more effort than usual to get along; you may ask a mediator to intervene.

  5. You can establish personal boundaries and limit your interactions.

  6. You can sever relational ties, shift the interactions to polite niceties, and engage only when necessary.

Not all relationships are lifelong. The famous adage “reason, season, lifetime” applies to everyone you connect with.

Years ago, my friend Laura introduced me to a color grid you can use when trying to figure out how much to invest in someone: green, yellow, red. I was so fascinated by this theory, I adapted it in coaching and training.

The Friendship Stoplight is a  resource available for grades 3-8 students. It is a curriculum that helps kids learn to recognize healthy and unhealthy friendships. Some examples that they address in the game, You Decide, range from “Your friend sometimes makes fun of you” to “Your friend is there for you when you need to talk.”  

To help professionals navigate tricky work relationships, I've expanded the teaching to include seven colors.

1. Green Lights: Green Light card carriers are people in your life that have earned your trust and know you intimately, whether that’s a close colleague, sibling, spouse, or best friend. Whoever it is, they have earned the highest honors in your pool of relationships and have stood by you through the ebb and flow seasons. They are your confidante and you have a transparent relationship where you can speak candidly, disagree, laugh, cry, celebrate, and lean on each other when times are tough. You feel the most known by the Green Lights and comfortable to be fully yourself. Those who earn the Green Light badge are very few in number. 

Do you ever feel pressure to treat some colleagues like a Green Light? If you place colleagues in the Green category before they have earned it, you may regret doing so later, wishing you had kept it strictly professional and transactional.

2. Blue Lights: Blue Lights is an ally. These are people you love and care about, that you see occasionally, and when you do it’s as though no time has passed. They are almost a Green, as in, you have a natural fondness for each other, a closeness without trying. They may not know the intricacies of your life as much as a Green would, but you fully enjoy their company. You have a great working relationship and you consider them trustworthy. You respect them greatly and have common interests and values. It’s effortless to spend time with them. And you both know that if you were neighbors, you’d hang out together all the time. 

3. Yellow Lights: They are a lot of fun to work with, you enjoy their company and want to include them. You may have different lives outside of work, but as colleagues you are in sync. You speak highly of one another and ask to team up with them any chance you get. You can count on them to help you with projects and they match your reciprocity. You may not feel fully known, but you’re okay with that. They don't necessarily have to be a Blue or Green light, but they do have the potential to be. This can also be a colleague that you consider a friend at work and most likely wouldn’t remain as close if either of you switched companies.  

4. Orange Lights: The orange lights are people in your life that you don’t have a lot of say about whether you even want them in your life! They can be that coworker you tolerate or extended family members that attend holiday dinners every year. You don’t have a lot in common with them and you keep conversations brief and prefer to have minimal engagement. It takes effort to carry on a conversation, or you might feel uncomfortable when you’re around them. Their personality is so different from yours that they can border on pushing your buttons unknowingly. You feel pressure to include them in team meetings or initiate conversations with them over a meal. You find it difficult to enjoy their company.  

5. Red Lights: The Red Light group is more of a transactional relationship. It could be the server at your favorite restaurant or an employee you interact with once a year on a specific project. It is friendly yet indifferent. You keep the conversations at a superficial level and are not interested in investing any of your time into the relationship. You only interact with them in an exchange of information, an email thread, at a team meeting, or to complete a task list. You don’t really know much about their personal life and frankly, never thought to ask. Similar to a barista in a coffee shop, you order your coffee in exchange for money, talk about the weather and finish the conversation with, “Thank you, have a nice day.”

6. Gray Lights: I see the Gray Lights as a holding tank. It’s in those times you’re not sure how to process the relationship. It may be either that you are hurt and it weighs heavily on you, or your relationship may be going through a change, but not necessarily in a bad way. In either case, there is either a strain or a feeling of distance between you and the person. Are you able to relate to either of the following scenarios?

Scenario 1: This is a temporary moment. Maybe they said something at the last team meeting that frustrated you and you’re not sure how to bring it up. Maybe you don’t agree politically, and as long as politics isn’t brought up you get along great, but that uncomfortable uneasiness puts a strain on your rapport. Maybe you like them, but you don’t like how sometimes they speak to you. Sometimes all you need to do is reconnect. The problem might not be a 'deal-breaker'. If you are feeling hurt, share the story that triggered you, and share that you don’t want anything to come between you. Initiate a conversation. Avoid burning bridges.  If you have an established relationship, reaching out to the person and talking openly about your concerns will bridge the gap.  

Scenario 2: Sometimes people grow apart but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Maybe you just miss them and calling them to say “I miss you” is all that’s needed. Sometimes people drift apart and it’s not because of any issues, it’s more so that your paths have taken you on different journeys. If there isn’t any grievance, hopefully by reading this, you will recognize that it’s simply moving them from a higher color to the Orange Lights. Sometimes when friendships shift, they temporarily are in the Gray until you can figure out if they are moving from one color to another. It doesn’t minimize the love you have for them, it’s just an adjustment.

The Gray Light is a place to work through your feelings and thoughts. Feel free to put a difficult coworker here if you are struggling with them. Gray Light is not a long-term solution, but rather a temporary pause. This means you're taking proactive measures to figure out what to do next.  

7. Black Lights: They have lost your trust and respect. It is best to accept the closure, heal, and move on because damage has been done. You choose to forgive and wish them success. You don’t wish them harm and should your paths cross again, you’ll be friendly and polite. You chalk it up to a relationship that was not intended for a lifetime and the person was in your life for a reason and a season. You gather the positive memories and recognize you are happier to let bygones be bygones. Even though you did not like what happened, you accept it, knowing that it will ultimately help you become a better person. You gain wisdom from the experience and develop skills to prevent it from happening again.

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