by Morag Barrett

Investing in professional relationships delivers a real ROI

May 19, 2016
CareersIT LeadershipRelationship Building

You can't be successful in business, or in life, unless you are successful in cultivating your professional relationships. Here are four guaranteed ways to damage your professional relationships.

None of us achieve success alone, the world of work is probably the biggest team sport any of us will ever take part in, and yet, at times, it can feel like our coworkers are on the opposing team rather than playing on the same side and for the same company.

I spent 15 successful years in the commercial finance industry, where the focus was entirely on business strategy, the bottom line. Numbers ruled the day. The mantra was “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” However, what I quickly observed was that the successful companies, those that not only achieved but exceed expectations, were the ones that focused not on the numbers alone, but also on their people strategy.

Cultivating winning relationships is not a “nice to have”: it’s a “need to do.” Nor is it simply a business imperative: it’s a personal imperative. We’ve all worked with people that we dislike or find irritating and frustrating to be with. The person whose ego is so large the office has to install double doors to get their head through, the colleague who just can’t stop talking; about anything but work, or someone who seems to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and seeks to share their complaints with any and all.

On the other hand, I am sure you have experienced professional relationships that embodied the partnership approach. A colleague who went out of their way to help you to succeed, who collaborated and shared information to ensure individual and business goals were achieved.

A winning workplace relationship doesn’t just “happen” by chance — and neither does an ineffective one. Relationships wilt or break down when we:

1. Forget to be present

The most common frustration I hear involves multitasking. We are all guilty of it, checking email while we are on the phone, not actively listening during a conversation. These all send the clear message: “You are not important.”

If you want to avoid any possibility of this, switch off the computer screen, turn away from the distractions, or if necessary, signal the fact that you are in the middle of something and schedule time when you can focus. Email can wait, people can’t.

A short message along the lines of:

“I can see this is important to you and want to ensure you have my full attention. Right now I have to finish this report / go to a meeting in 5 minutes / reply to this urgent customer email. Please can we meet at 2:00 p.m.?”

This sends a powerful message of commitment to the relationship. Often, instead of taking the lead and signaling our needs, we allow the unexpected interruption to continue while continuing to think about the work at hand. Nobody wins.

2. Break commitments

Things will crop up and get in the way of genuine commitments, in which case, pick up the phone, or walk over to their desk, and let the parties know you need an extension, or are no longer able to assist. If you let your coworker down, you could spend months rebuilding trust, all for the lack of a quick conversation.

3. Fail to apologize, quickly and sincerely

You are going to make mistakes. When you do, step up quickly and apologize sincerely. Ignore the temptation to tell white lies or minimize the impact you’ve had on others. Mistakes can sometimes be an opportunity to turn a relationship around!

4. Selectively build relationships

If you are focused only on the ‘right’ connections, your style will come across as inauthentic. We’ve worked with many leaders who, when they analyze their critical relationships, discover that these are skewed in one direction (usually up) and are not representative across the organization.

They put a lot of energy in cultivating relationships with those with the right title and seniority, the vertical relationships, but spend less care and attention on those horizontal relationships across the business.

Building an effective network requires a 360-degree perspective, within your company or industry — and outside of it!

Relationship reality check

Not all relationships will start (or finish) as mutually positive. In effecting change in your relationships you should expect the unexpected. There will be times when things transform quickly; there will also be times where a relationship that seems to be making progress, suddenly takes a step backwards. It is at these times you will need to apply your relationship cultivation skills, and be resilient.

Do you need to revive a wilted relationship?

Take a minute to write down the three critical goals you must achieve in the next few months. Next to each goal, write down the names of your coworkers who can directly impact and help your success, or potentially undermine it.

  • As you consider each person, how would you describe the health of that working relationship today?
  • Is it healthy and focused on mutual success, or is it better characterized as one that is tense and more adversarial?

If you now realize that you are party to a relationship gone sour, don’t panic. You can turn this around. Whatever the reason for why you find yourself where you are you owe it to yourself to make the first move to effect change.