How to Play at Work

Catherine F. Simon, Head of Global HR and Culture.

Have you ever hated your job? Truly despised every day? What was it about the job that you hated… I’ll take a guess and say it wasn’t the day to day tasks but the interactions with people that really ticked you off. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that 1 in 4 people leave their job because they don’t get on with a colleague.

What makes workplace interactions so complicated? We all learned how to behave properly in kindergarten, so why do we so easily abandon our basic values when in a corporate setting? The answer is that each one of us will have a unique perception of the same set of information and most of us don’t really understand the impact our behavior has on others, nor do we naturally question it. The problem is, we judge ourselves based on our intentions, but others based on their actions.

Take a look at this picture. What’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Horses? Love? Friendship? Sunset? In any group of people, you’ll hear each one of these responses. Everyone has different perceptions of the same set of information. If we all understand this fact, we can value diversity, create rapport and ultimately co-create results. If we are already hung up on arguing who is right or wrong about their perception, we can’t go very far in co-creating results and the chances are we’ll start hating our jobs, disengaging and ultimately either avoiding accountability or leaving our jobs.

When we understand that our behavior can be interpreted differently and independently from our intentions and that there is a consequence and impact of our behavior on others, we have some self-knowledge. The next step is understanding this about other people which is what we call valuing diversity. Only when we respect and acknowledge that others have different and equally valid perspectives as our own, can we build rapport which allows us to co-create results.

Building trust in teams and achieving optimal productivity is a long game and requires attention and dedication. But if we can just go back to school for a moment and remember the basic rules for how to play together, we can move forward much more quickly towards alignment and results.

So what are the rules of the game?

Don’t point.

Never, ever accuse people of wrongdoing publicly. Ask yourself first if it is the right moment or context for your feedback before sharing it. Approach the individual you believe to be at fault privately and use facts before making judgment.

Finger-pointing is an instinctive response mechanism whereby one seeks to safeguard their reputation, position, or pride by ascribing or deflecting blame. Doing so, however, erodes trust among the team. This creates a combative environment where it's every person for themselves, fostering a fear of failure and experimentation, in turn hampering innovation and collaboration.

Use your words.

Studies suggest we severely underestimate other people's willingness to help. Moreover, the cost of NOT asking questions, opinions, or favors (big issues further down the line) often eclipses the much smaller cost of asking (risk of inconveniencing a colleague).

So, when you need something, ask for it. Don’t assume people can read your mind. No one will dump opportunity in your lap. If you don’t ask, you can’t complain.

Say you’re sorry.

Things will go wrong, you will make mistakes and so will others. If you hurt someone unintentionally, say you’re sorry. Admitting when you are wrong is almost always the fastest and best way forward.
As in life, so at work, an apology must go hand-in-hand with a genuine intent not to repeat the offense or mistake. Accordingly, while it's a good idea to start off with “I'm sorry”, this should always be followed by an acknowledgment of the wrong-doing, thus signaling an understanding of the severity of the mistake and diffusing any left-over tension.


Active listening is one of the most in-demand soft skills and for good reason, too – it signals compassion, a willingness to learn, and a goal-oriented attitude, among other things. Yet, most meeting rooms and workplaces are packed with people just waiting to say their piece, rather than truly engaging with others, thus producing a dismissive and hierarchical environment.

You can’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, so remember you don’t really know things until you ask. Listening and asking questions activate people and help build relationships. If you impose your opinions and judgements on others before asking, you push them into a corner rather than engaging them in conversation.

Put away your toys.

Collaboration is key to achieving results in a team. Remember that whatever you’re working on, it isn’t finished until it’s ready for someone else to take over. Documentation should be a part of every job.

Be it for ensuring work continuity while you're on vacation, a task hand-over following a promotion, or simply facilitating easier on-boarding for new teammates, keeping everything nice and tidy (and accessible) makes everyone's lives easier. Proper documentation not only helps declutter your own playspace, but it's also a sign of respect towards your playmates.

Don’t cry over spilt milk.

No one is infallible. You will make mistakes and so will your colleagues and even your bosses. Don’t sweat the small stuff because if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
To paraphrase Thomas Edison, failure is an important discovery of what doesn't work – it puts you on the path to finding what does. The key takeaway is that any response to failure is a matter of attitude. Fail, then do better, instead of wallowing and feeling sorry for yourself.


Sharing first generates better results. Take time to share with others and you’ll see a return on the investment. Success is perfectly divisible and no one person can claim credit for a team result.

This matters at every level – from sharing your work for a second opinion (when applicable) to celebrating successes together by acknowledging all the support you've received along the way. As a culture of gratitude permeates your workplace, so will participation, engagement, and helpfulness. It costs you nothing to share in your success with others, but the upsides are immeasurable.

Make space for everyone.

The argument that makes the best decision may come from anybody in the room, regardless of their seniority. Sometimes the best ideas come from the most unexpected people so make space for all voices to be heard.

This can mean anything from reigning in those hogging the spotlight to calling on those timidly lurking backstage. In any case, it's about creating an open, inclusive environment where everyone feels safe to speak their mind and contribute to the discussion. That said, this can't happen without taking heed of the aforementioned points – failure must be accepted and active listening practiced.

Tell the truth.

Hiding an agenda or not being forthcoming about what you want will always slow you down. What you signal to others and what you request should be what you really want and not a part of a plan to influence others.
A study revealed that over half of workers believe that lying about liking your company or about liking your employer is acceptable. The reality is that unless you speak up, nothing will change and you'll continue to be stuck in a place where you're unhappy. When you lie, whether to hide a mistake or to please a colleague or a boss, you're just shooting yourself in the foot – it will always come back to haunt you in the long term.

Wash your hands before you start.

Prepare yourself before asking for someone else’s time. It’s a sign of respect and it allows for better use of time for everybody involved.
Indeed, respect has been among the most important cultural factors in a workplace for years and it most commonly manifests as valuing your colleagues' and bosses' time. Yes, it's good to ask questions, as long as those questions add value. Yes, it's important to listen, as long as you're genuinely engaging with what's being said. Yes, it's good to fail, as long as that failure is productive.
Personal preparation is at the core of every other point we've discussed thus far – without it, you're just coasting on the knowledge of your peers.

Parting remarks

In conclusion, you can't pick and choose these rules. They're all interconnected and fundamental to a productive and welcoming workplace. If any link in the chain fails, the others will follow and with them – the true potential of your team.

Empathy and honesty are the two key elements that underpin this list. And while it’s nice to be important, it’s more important to be nice. At least, if you want your business to be truly competitive and thrive.

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