The idea for this article came from a question I recently received from a manager, who asked:
What do you do when a group of people that work together have a lot of history and just don’t generally like each other?
As you can see from the title, I’m not answering the exact question, but I am confident that what I am about to share with you will shed significant light on that question, and the hundred related ones I have been asked in the past (and I make a specific comment to this question before I am done as well).
Let’s start with my premise: People don’t have to like each other to work together successfully and productively. While liking is preferable, it shouldn’t be the goal of the team members or the boss.
The goal is effective working relationships.
Let’s start with the word “like”. According to, there are 29 definitions of this word! I’d say that we should look at the verb definitions, since we are talking about whether people like each other or not; but none of the 29 definitions are verbs. The most connected ideas though, relate to the ideas of “similar appearance, general agreement and bearing resemblance to”.
While I don’t want this to be a grammar lesson, hopefully the point is clear. We often “like” people with whom we have things in common, things that we agree with in some ways, or are connected to in other ways. There is nothing wrong with this – this is the human condition - yet, is that even what matters in the workplace? In fact, it would be easy to say that we want diversity in many ways to generate the best ideas, multiple perspectives and more (i.e. people who might not “like” each other).
As I said, “like” is the wrong goal.
The other, also misguided (and closely related) goal is being friends with coworkers.
I won’t do the grammar thing again on the word friends, but it is clear to see that not everyone has the same definition of this word either. You know people who feel they have one or two close friends, and others who call all of their 812 connections on Facebook their friends. Neither of these people is wrong, but to have a leadership goal (stated or otherwise) to create friendships isn’t wise or necessary either.
Let’s go back to my premise. The goal should be “effective working relationships.”
And the roots of effective working relationships are trust and respect.
Can you think of people that you trust and respect but you wouldn’t call friends?
I surely can – tons of them. And I could (and do) work very successfully with them, couldn’t you?
The Answer to the Question
So now, let me directly answer the question I asked in the title: No, you don’t have to like the people you work with, BUT you shouldn’t use “not liking them” as an excuse for a lack of productivity or success in your work. You have a job to do, and it will involve your connection to, interactions with and ultimately your relationships with other people. If you care about your work output, and if the “liking” barrier is in your way, it is your responsibility to get past that barrier to create a working relationship. And if you can’t (or won’t) do that, it may be time to find a new place to work.
As leaders, when we hear the “I don’t like them” or related comments, we must help people change the goal – it isn’t about liking or friendship, it is about finding a working level of respect and trust as it relates to the work at hand. When we are clear on the goal and expectations, we can help others move in the right direction – towards less frustration and angst and greater results.
A Final Note
In the question as originally posed to me, there is another important point I haven’t yet addressed . . . history.
Guess what? History is in the past. And since you can’t change the past, continuing to define relationships on history alone is fruitless (especially when the history is negative).
As leaders, we must help people focus less on the past, and more on the behaviors that will help people work successfully together in the present. The hurt, disappointment, frustration, anger (name your emotion here) of the past is real and it is over.
Focus people on what they can influence, that is, their future behavior. If, as a leader, you would like some tools to help you reduce conflict and set a course for better working relationships in the future, let me recommend this recording of a powerful learning session with my colleague Guy Harris

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