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Relationships at Work

Do you have to push yourself to develop important relationships at work? Many see it as a necessary evil, a time-consuming diversion from doing real work.

It's easy to dismiss relationship building with colleagues senior to us as a political exercise to be avoided like the plague.

If you're not the political type and too busy anyway, how can you justify investing more time and effort to develop business relationships? Reviewing their importance helps but we should also explore why it feels like a burden.

Consider, first, our attitude toward work. We tend to see our real job as getting things done. Organizational cultures reinforce this mindset by holding us accountable individually.

Further, we collude in this cultural mandate because we like doing things, getting things done. Spending time with people gets in the way of doing what we're best at, what we're held accountable for and what we most like doing.

This is why we need to schedule time for relationship building. Otherwise, it just doesn't happen except where it arises in the natural course of our work, which makes it generally ad hoc rather than strategic.

The importance of Relationships at Work

Relationships are critical to success at work for reasons such as the following:

• Growing complexity demands continuous collaboration for efficient execution.

• Large projects require teamwork; individuals can achieve little.

• Innovation depends on the active and constant sharing of information and ideas.

• Career advancement is like getting elected: it requires a strong support group.

• Hierarchical leadership is outdated for modern, knowledge driven organizations where greater shared ownership over strategic decisions is essential.

• Today's hyper-competitiveness demands closer relationships with customers and partners.

Thus it is the nature of 21st century work, especially in knowledge-driven industries, that is behind the increasing emphasis on relationships. Unfortunately, the culture of many organizations is still stuck in the industrial age.

Is it just a matter of setting aside more time to develop key relationships? No, the problem is deeper than that. People who say they're too busy to undertake any new activity really mean that it isn't important enough to them.

A key step in raising the importance of relationships, beyond the above points, is to question why getting things done is so central to our identity. If you're a manager, you may need to shift how you see yourself and your role. This means moving from doer to catalyst or facilitator.

Organizational Culture and the Role of Manager

The toxic combination of hierarchy and individual accountability creates a rigid structure of roles with walls around them. A me-first mentality is the result, reinforced by our tendency to put our own needs first anyway.

The old saying: "You get what you pay for" plays a strong role. We can advocate teamwork and collaboration until we're blue in the face but if we continue to reward individual effort, that is what we will get. Because career success is a matter of individuals climbing a ladder, it is no wonder that we collaborate only as much as is minimally necessary.

To change this culture, organizations need to start holding groups more accountable as well as the collaborative efforts of individuals. Each organizational subgroup can still make use of some individual accountability, but we need a much better balance between the two in order to encourage fuller collaboration and relationship building.

The role of the manager also needs to change: from a focus on getting things done to someone who facilitates and operates as a catalyst. More than anything else, this means placing less emphasis on their own problem solving and decision-making. Managers need to focus more on asking the most engaging question they can ask: "What do you think?"

We like to play to our strengths, which often coincides with the things we most enjoy doing. Most of us like solving problems, using our analytical skills and doing our own thinking. Instead of asking others what they think, we grill them for information so we can generate our own solutions. This is what managers mean when they say they want to do "real work."

Coaching and facilitating are too removed from the action for many managers. We admire the great goal scorers in sports much more than their coaches even though the best of the latter are also highly regarded. We love sports because we identify with the heroic feats of the stars, not the behind-the-scenes actions of their coaches.

Moreover, we may be better at generating solutions than at coaching, engaging others and facilitating. So, changing our focus means developing new skills as well.

Relationship Building Skills

There are a number of well known relationship building skills but the most critical one is showing interest in the needs of others. This means continually seeking opportunities to ask potential contacts questions about what they're absorbed in and how it's going. It means listening carefully, reading between the lines and constantly thinking about how you can help, even if only to ask a question that suggests a new way forward for them.

It helps to think of yourself as a consultant trying to build your business with prospective clients. You need to diagnose their needs. Just asking them what they need help with won't generally work. You need to do the hard work of figuring out how you can help them.

They might not know, or be willing to admit, that they could use some help and they might not know what you can do for them anyway. Actually, neither of you might know how you can help. It is often only through discussion that the answer to this question emerges.

The primary emphasis of relationship building at work is not socializing, going out for lunch or for drinks after work, although such activities can help. The real focus is teamwork, finding ways to work with people to get more done. It's recognizing that partnerships can achieve more than individual effort and strategically aligning yourself with those people with whom you can add the most value for the business.

The good news here is that you don't need to be highly outgoing or socially skilled to build relationships. It's just a matter of regularly showing interest in a few key people by asking them questions and finding common work related interests, bearing in mind that such common interests don't have to be exclusively work related.

Our negative attitude toward relationship building, viewing it as a political act, is primarily due to our focus on our own needs. Thus we over emphasize what's in it for us when we think about forming strategic partnerships and this can lead us to see it as demeaning. It seems too much like asking people to do something for us. The way around this roadblock is to focus on helping others to add more value for the organization.

Selfish or Selfless?

There's a continuum from total selfishness to complete selflessness. Being at the selfish end of the spectrum means sacrificing everyone else's needs to our own while being completely selfless means the opposite: always sacrificing our own needs for the sake of others.

Making more effort to help others be successful doesn't require us to be completely selfless, just to strike a better balance between the two extremes. Think of it as a leadership opportunity. Helping others and the broader organization succeed is a way to show leadership, going beyond "what's in it for me," while recognizing that doing so could help you be even more successful in the long run.

In conclusion, relationship building will become a higher priority when three things happen:

  • Organizations start rewarding collaboration as much as individual effort.
  • We switch our identity from individual goal scorer to catalyst, coach and facilitator.
  • We show more interest in the needs and interests of others to help them succeed

See also: Questions for SuccessHow to Engage PeopleConfidence at Work and How to Contribute More in Meetings and other posts under Success at Work.

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