Our Work Relationships Are Not Transactional

Transactional interactions are easy. They’re clearly defined, they have a start and end, the expectations are explicit, and they don’t require much thought. For example, when a cashier asks, “How are you?” this is a transaction. The expected response is, “Good, and you?” These transactional exchanges can help guide short-term relationships.

In reality, most of our relationships are not transactional. We may think they are, and we may think that this is the most equitable way. We often think that you can only take what you can give. We may think that if you can’t give, then you are in debt, and if someone else cannot give, they are in debt to you.

Redefining Relationships

Here’s where we get into your work relationships. Your work relationships are not transactional, they’re reciprocal. You don’t hold back on reviewing a PR because your co-worker was busy last week and couldn’t review your PR. It’s untenable to think that you will keep that number balanced. No one’s keeping a tally of the number of dishes you’ve washed (or at least I hope they don’t).

Reciprocal relationships are more difficult but more rewarding. They’re also a key part of the Do-ocracy. You might lend your neighbor your lawnmower in the spring, and they might lend you a cup of sugar for holiday baking. No score’s being kept, and one interaction is not dependent on the other. You’re both investing in a relationship because of a shared interest in each other’s well-being.

Keeping a Score That No One’s Checking

When viewing work relationships as transactional, you end up keeping a score that no one is checking. There’s no scoreboard for how many times you’ve asked for help. No one is making tally marks on the whiteboard marking how many times they have changed the toilet paper roll. This can work both ways. If you understand that you don’t need to be of use to someone to ask for help, you can start to disassemble the barrier that says “Why would they want to help me, I can’t do anything for them.” or “You’ve helped me enough, I can’t ask for more.”

Opening the Door

Reciprocal thinking opens the door for grace. It allows you to start thinking less about how someone isn’t pulling their weight, when you can replace it with “They must have forgot about this, or they must be very busy if they don’t have time to take care of this.”
It makes gratitude easier as well. When you can leave out the “How can I ever repay you?” part of a thank you note, it becomes a little easier to focus on saying Thank You with your whole heart. It can open the door to surprising acts of kindness, and ways to share the pain or teach and learn without reservation.

Neglect and Communication

It’s still possible for a reciprocal relationship to face neglect. That neglect can come from a source of intentional or unintentional actions. If you find yourself stepping up frequently and for larger and larger tasks, it can become a burden. Communication is key in these situations, and it becomes your task to communicate your needs to those around you.

Next Steps

How can you open doors in your work relationships? Do you need to ask for help more often? Focus more on your own well-being and focus less on feeling indebted to others. What are some ways that you see reciprocity in your workplace?


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