“Why is it so difficult to work with women bosses? Even though they are high up there on the career ladder and well-established, they still feel the need to intimidate those working for, with, and around them. So much for all the International Women’s Day slogans or shenanigans? It seems to be the height of hypocrisy to me, and one of the reasons women still have less representation in boardrooms.

Even though my boss sees nothing good in my work because she always complains about my low deposit drive, she would not let me move to another department where I could be more productive.

Honestly, I am not passionate about marketing or mobilizing deposits because it sometimes involves meeting some unscrupulous men for them. There was finally an opening in the customer care department where I could be productive due to my passion for it and previous work experience. Unfortunately, Mrs. A, our head of client services, who happened to be a friend of my current boss, turned down my application while still looking for a candidate to fill the role. I later learned that my boss refused to sign off on the inter-department transfer form required to accept me into the new role. I am confused as to what to do now. Please help.”

The story here is much deeper than revealed in those few words above. A brief deep dive indicated that it was a working relationship that started on a very wrong footing amid a terrible workplace culture. So, here are a few tips on identifying and maintaining different types of work relations to stay out of trouble.

Figuring it out – Identifying where people at work belong and treating them accordingly is crucial to building a successful career and excellent professional relationships. Five easily identifiable work ties exist in the workplace with respective ways of managing them. For example, interacting with regular colleagues, work friends, work best friends, and even work enemies warrant different treatments. Even when work enemies are always at loggerheads, civility, objectivity, and mutual respect are still expected from both parties. Also, never mistake a superior or direct report as a work friend. In a superior/direct report relationship, having work-appropriate conversations, lunching together, or sharing hobbies are acceptable if they do not lead to favouritism and undue advantages.

Interestingly, work anxiety or trouble disclosures in mentor/mentee scenarios are encouraged, provided the stories do not include those of team members. A career mentor is there to help professionally first, and until a mentor becomes a lifelong guide to your career and a friend, discussing personal issues should be discouraged. And even when you become close, always remember the purpose of the relationship.

Lastly, managing client service or sales relationships with customers may be tricky, but some rules guide this also. Avoiding oversharing and allowing clients to take control of conversations are parts of best practices.

Although these encounters may be by way of lone or group work, direct service/report, or just interactions, everyone belongs to a category that must be noted and considered as, a relationship guide. Many people fall into the error of not figuring this out, hence, crossing some boundaries as revealed in this case study. Even though the writer’s work relationship with her boss is a superior/direct report one, they both dabbled into activities expected of work best friends as if they were colleagues. Despite some psychological benefits attached to this type of connection, it is somewhat inappropriate in most cases due to some attendant consequences as revealed below.

Avoiding money talk – Because Mz. Zara’s work relationship with her boss extended to work best friend even though they were not colleagues, she had money discussions that ought not to be. Money talk is one of the dangers of not figuring out who is who or failing to treat work relations appropriately. Also, discussing how much you spend on certain personal items may make people around you uncomfortable and that includes your boss. A seemingly friendly banter can easily turn into an ugly case of envy.

Building a healthy team – Nobody prays for work enemies let alone have them on your team. However, you have no control over who likes or hates you even if you do your best to be in their good books. Nonetheless, forming cliques and class structures with unwholesome closeness in the organization may be riskier. The toxic environment cliques create often reeks of intimidation and unhealthy rivalry. This easily festers because it’s continually fueled by personal goals to the detriment of corporate ones. Building teams with only friends at work often leads to social discrimination and technical bankruptcy. Involving different people in projects makes the team a target focus force with a uniform corporate goal.

Avoiding office romance – Avoid office romance or report it whenever it happens. This includes client/staff romance and breakups, to avoid compromises and undue advantage. Following the company’s HR policy or guidelines for this is highly recommended. Unfortunately, the writer was exposed to some uncomfortable information by way of association that may be difficult to report to HR or unlearn.

Staying positive – Even though the situation, in this case, is somewhat sticky, staying positive by taking the lessons learned from the experience and moving on would be the best way to go about this. Maintaining a good relationship with a boss or colleague requires deliberate efforts. However, compromising values can lead to unfathomable exposure and psychological instability. In this case study, leaving the organization on a positive note may strengthen her resolve while allowing for positive references.

Naturally, we often crave various human connections in the workplace because we spend most of our lives – time and energy there. When these connections create problems, the decision to resolve them amicably, broker deals, or walk away from the whole fiasco should be on peaceful co-existence without trampling personal inner peace. This is why designing alignment at the start of a job is critical to every employee and should be a part of the onboarding program of every company.

Designing an alliance is a coaching tool necessary for all types of relationships in the workplace and personal life. It is a coaching tool that openly discusses relationship rules when entering a new one or changing roles in an already-established relationship. Bear in mind, working in any organization is the foremost relationship followed by the others formed through people interactions. Failure to design and develop appropriate alliances often leads to conflicting values, a poor understanding of relationship rules, and failed relationships.

Mz. Zara did not just experience a failed relationship with the boss but the whole organization the moment her values conflicted with the unspoken ones of the company. She has taken a good step by contacting a career coach who will successfully lead her out of the snare.

Call to action

Should you need to talk to an expert on work-related issues, kindly email [email protected] for some career coaching sessions. Remember, I am here to help build great workplaces, one person or organization at a time.

Please note that names of people and organizations remain changed or undisclosed for confidentiality purposes.

Opaleye, a well-being specialist and corporate wellness strategist, writes from Lagos