What is the Importance of Chemistry Among People in the Workplace?

As I write this post the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are wrapping up. In pairs competitions, such as figure skating, commentators consider the degree of chemistry between the skaters, because intense chemistry enhances the quality of the performance. Similarly, in movies chemistry (or lack of it) between two actors is often cited as a very important factor in the movie’s quality. We know when chemistry is present and when it’s not. When it’s intense, it’s almost tangible.

But so what? Good chemistry might be important in artistic endeavors, but how important is it in the workplace? We all work with people we like, but with whom we don’t have any remarkable degree of chemistry one way or the other. We routinely collaborate with these people to achieve results we’re proud of. Furthermore, we also work with people with whom the chemistry is not so good. And we collaborate effectively with them as well. So I would say that good chemistry is in the “nice to have” rather than the “need to have” category.

But, intense chemistry, good or bad, will have a material effect on the degree of excellence people can achieve together — whether it’s two people or a group of people. The chemistry we’re discussing here is actual brain chemistry taking place in the brains of the performers and also the observers. The brain produces different chemicals during moments of good chemistry than during moments bad chemistry.

If the chemistry is really bad, the people involved likely will not be able to do their best work. They’ll have have less energy, they’ll be less positive and less creative. They won’t have any fun. Despite their best intentions to put their feelings aside, they’re extremely unlikely to produce excellence. On the other hand, when the chemistry is really good people are more optimistic and creative, and they’re energized by the collaboration. They experience deep intrinsic satisfaction.

When the good chemistry among individuals is intense, extraordinary results can be achieved. When those results are achieved, the people involved want to do it again. It’s those brain chemicals. They want more of those. That’s why success is so motivational.

The natural next question is, “What’s the formula for creating good chemistry?” Sadly, I’m not aware of one. You can’t force it, but you can create conditions under which it can materialize. Give pairs or groups of people a challenging assignment which each person in the group genuinely cares about. Proactively help them get to know each other and to develop close relationships while working on that assignment. Good chemistry might well emerge.

My conclusion is this. Even though chemistry is in the “nice to have” category, it’s really, really, really nice to have. If you’ve experienced this, you know what I’m talking about.

Thanks to my friend Keith McLeod for suggesting this topic.

And thanks for reading. As always, I’m interested in your point of view.

Larry Sternberg

2 thoughts on “What is the Importance of Chemistry Among People in the Workplace?

  1. Good chemistry isn’t necessary until your competition has it and you don’t. Larry, I’d love to read your best guess at a formula for it, or maybe a few examples of team chemistry you’ve seen or experienced. Great post.

  2. Josh, I wish I had even a best guess. I think we’re better off focusing the conditions under which great chemistry might emerge. We’re talking about relationships here, so helping people get to know each other while striving to achieve something meaningful to them is my contributions to those conditions. I’d love to hear what others say.

    Regarding just one “chemistry” experience I’ve had I’ll talk about Pat Mene, who was my best friend for more than 20 years. We worked together in the Omni International Hotel Company. When we met I was head of corporate HR, and Pat was a Food and Beverage Director. We simply enjoyed each other’s company, personally and professionally. We discussed and debated our company business model, strategies and tactics. We laughed a lot. He had a bizarre sense of humor. He was extremely intelligent. And he valued me as a friend and colleague. He became a General Manager, Omni was bought, and we didn’t work together for a while. Then we found ourselves working together in the Portman Hotel company. He joined as Vice President and Managing Director of the Portman Hotel. I was VP of HR. On our first day of face-to-face collaboration I think we laughed darn near all day — and we got a lot of great work done. We collaborated to do some things at that hotel never before done in the hotel industry. It prepared Pat to later on win two Malcolm Baldrige awards for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. Our chemistry never diminished. I can’t remember a time we were angry at each other. I miss him dearly.

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