No one liked Mike. He was often surly, He rarely spoke. If he did, it was usually to express displeasure or discontent. While he did his job really well, he never jumped in to help others on the crew.
I didn't know any of that when I changed shifts. He was just the guy operating the machine ahead of mine on the production line. So when I was heading to the break room to grab a soda, I pointed at him and tilted my hand towards myself as if drinking from a can. (Noisy shop-floor sign language for, "Want a drink?")
He frowned. So I made the "drink" gesture again and then tapped my pants pocket to say, "I'm buying."
He stared for another second, then nodded once.
When I got back I put his soda can on his toolbox because he was adjusting a conveyor. When he was done he picked it up, raised it slightly, and nodded. I nodded back and thought nothing of it. No big deal. That's how crews work.
A little while later he stepped across the platform and stood beside me. I don't remember what we talked about. Nothing, basically. That's also how crews work.
After he walked away, two other guys on the crew scurried over and said, "What did Mike want?" one asked. "You must have pissed him off."
"Nothing..." I said. "We were just talking."
"Bull----," the other snorted. "Mike doesn't do 'talking.'"
Actually, he did.
Just not with them.
Work Relationships Constantly Change
Work relationships aren't binary. They aren't either positive or negative. Nor are they fixed.
Work relationships exist on an ever-changing spectrum: Sometimes relationships with certain people are fairly good; other times, poor. And situational: I may get along great with you one-on-one, but we may sometimes clash when part of a larger team.
For whatever reason, Mike's crew didn't like him, and he didn't like them. They had evidently decided the situation would always be bad, and acted that way.
Over time, I got to know Mike really well. His brusque, tough exterior masked his innate insecurities. He waited for others to make the first move. When they didn't, he assumed they didn't like him.
While I was just being polite, I had made the first move.
And that was all it took.*
So Forget Grand Gestures
It's tempting to think, when a professional relationship is "bad," that some sort of grand gesture is needed: A formal sit-down. A long, detailed email. An, "I really think we need to talk about this," session.
Grand gestures do occasionally work. The elephant in the room is glimpsed, a little air get cleared.
But there's a better way: What science calls "micro-moves." Micro-moves are small actions that seem unimportant but nonetheless affect how we relate to each other.
Saving Mike a trip to the break room was a micro-move. Mike saying thanks, and chatting for a few minutes, was a micro-move.
Crew members rushing over to see what we had talked about was a negative micro-move, signaling what they thought about Mike but also about me. (After all, if I got along with a guy like him, something must be wrong with me.)
According to research, the result of positive micro-moves is that:
... employees who sense a positive regard from their managers and coworkers as well as from their relatives and friends are likely to experience significant development, affect and capital gains (high work-home enrichment), which expands opportunities to thrive (i.e., develop an enhanced capacity for learning and a sense of vitality).
Or in non researcher-speak, it really is the little things that count. Grand gestures matter, but small gestures matter just as much.
Think about some of your favorite people. You like them not because of the occasional grand gesture, but due to an accumulation of small gestures that show regard, respect, and caring. Taking the time to listen. Offering a quiet word of thanks. Helping with something small, without being asked.
Grabbing you a drink from the break room.
Want to improve your professional (and personal) relationships?
Think small. Think micro-moves.
Find little ways to show gratitude. Or compassion. Or understanding. Or courtesy.
Do the little things often enough, and the big things will almost always take care of themselves.