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Behaving at work: Accessible but not too familiar

March 01, 2020

I’ve been working with other people for more than 10 years. My biggest challenge has always been interpersonal relationships, not technical problems. Through my mistakes I’ve tried to improve my behaviour and my place in a group of colleagues. I’ll be writing a series of posts about it in the upcoming weeks. This week I want to talk about one of my latest learnings, being accessible but not too familiar.

Accesible but not too familiar is a term I read from the book “The first 90 days”. As Michael Watkins puts it better:

Being accessible does not mean making yourself available indiscriminately. It means being approachable, but in a way that preserves your authority.

People overlooking London

Let’s try to break it down a bit. What does “being approachable” means? Approachable according to the dictionary definition means “to be friendly and easy to talk to”. In a working environment that’s one of the best skills you can have. To achieve that you can do things like:

  • Smile when you make eye contact with people.
  • When someone talks to you devote your full attention to them.
  • Take off headphones.
  • Lean towards them.
  • Look them in the eyes.
  • Nod during a conversation.
  • Be positive.

What about being familiar? The term implies friendship, knowing someone more intimitely. These are things that can vastly complicate a working relationship. Imagine having to make a conversation that contains some disagreement or some hard decisions with a friend of yours. Imagine having to remove your friend, for example, from a project that you know they love. That’s going to be very tough and extremely awkward conversation. The same applies when you are becoming too familiar with your colleagues, it complicates decision making and in certain cases it creates expectations that they shouldn’t be there.

Additionally to the above, my experience taught me that when you are becoming too familiar you lose a lot of your authority. When people have seen you being funny, silly, vulnerable are more prone to dismiss you. Especially when you change gears and become serious. The effects of that are added frustration from your side and many other negative feelings. It also makes the entire team weaker.

What should one do to avoid being too familiar? I’m not exactly sure but here’s the things I’m experimenting with:

  • Don’t get involved in every single conversation happening (either in person of via messages/emails).
  • It’s OK to spend some of your lunch breaks alone. Take a walk, workout, eat at a park.
  • Participate social events in moderation. I feel it’s OK to miss some. It’s mandatory to be in your best behaviour when attending others. Getting drunk, overly friendly, loud or getting into loaded conversations (religion, politics etc) might not be the best of ideas. Let those for your friends/family.
  • Moderate how long you stay in those events.
  • The morning after the event be at work, ready and sharp. Nothing worst that taking a sick day the day after an event because you have a hangover.

Where is the balance then? I feel that the balance is exactly where Michael Watkins puts it. You should try to be a kind, positive and helpful person that keeps some of the mystery for your friends and family. Now, what happens if you become friends with some colleagues? That’s good but I still feel that there are many levels of familiarity and friendship. In my opinion some of those levels can’t be reached if you are working with the other person. If it still happens though then it’s very beneficial to have a real talk with the other person and clearly define the relationship inside work vs outside.

I need to finish this with saying that this isn’t a guide on how to be antisocial. It’s personal opinion. It’s very important to be positive and respectful towards others. It’s not important to be friends.


Thoughts of a developer, a photographer, a runner, a cook. All of them the same person. George is also on Twitter!