What do teenage children, marriage and friendships have in common when thinking about work? They all offer excellent opportunities for developing relationship skills in the workplace.

I am overly fond of talking about the personal learning development opportunities having teenage children offers and the benefits to organisational working. Think about it: the tactics parents use to secure positive, sustainable engagement with their offspring, ranging from straightforward performance management to the more subtle use of incentives. It's just like work!

Relationships are important because they act as social glue - not only within families and our wider social networks - but also within and between organisations. I am therefore not surprised when relationship issues emerge in my coaching work with senior managers.

Relationship management is crucial to managers because it is the basis for pursuing change. Achieving the service changes required across the NHS will require much greater collaboration and partnership between people and organisations across health and social care systems.

With few exceptions, NHS history shows that insufficient attention is paid to developing relationships for their own sake before embarking on significant change to services. We frequently forget that people - not services, departments or organisations - are the ones who actually do business with other people. Given a choice, we will do business with people we like and respect, while trying to avoid those we do not.

What makes a great leader?

Leadership is an empathetic, relationship-based activity and we admire leaders who have the emotional intelligence to engage and inspire people by creating bonds that are authentic and reliable. After all, leaders are created in the minds of followers, not the other way round.

However, despite the importance attached to interpersonal dynamics in the workplace, there is surprisingly little hard evidence about what makes or breaks work relationships. There is some early research from the likes of John Kotter, whose 1982 work The General Managers highlights the day-to-day conversational, networking-based approach of successful managers, something we take for granted today.

More interesting is the work of psychologist John Gottman, who argues that good relationships are not about clear communication but small moments of attachment and intimacy. As Kotter's earlier research showed, we do this in the workplace by taking an interest in the lives of work colleagues, for example by asking about family, children, weekend activities and holidays.

In terms of practical advice, Gottman points to the importance of developing a good relationship by looking for the positive in other people and finding ways to say "yes"; for example, Yes, that's a good idea; Yes, that's a good point, Yes, I never thought of that; and so on. He adds that this is particularly important for men because their ability to accept influence from women is one of the most critical relationship issues.

Stumbling blocks

There are also behaviours that get in the way of building effective relationships, such as criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. Experienced managers will have seen these behaviours played out at one time or another in their careers. Any of them can trigger relationship break-up, with contempt being the worst behaviour because it communicates disgust, which can destroy relationships.

It is almost impossible to resolve conflict in an atmosphere of contempt and the chances of any change being agreed on are small.

Leaders of organisations and teams can do a lot to help. For example, they can provide opportunities for people to meet informally or semi-socially, which can help build effective working relationships, especially between organisations.

Second, if the opportunity arises to redesign work areas, they can provide space where people can meet, mix or regularly cross each other's path to maximise informal networking.