An IT executive recently said that, “As you move up in the organization, people spend more time working on politics than they do on quality.”
This is a pretty depressing thought for those who have spent years developing their technical acumen and delivery disciplines in the naïve hope that the resulting product would speak for itself. When it comes to perceptions of quality, the soft trumps the hard every time; poor relationships caste a dull patina on the shiniest portrait and can make even a good product or service look bad.
On the other hand (and there’s always another hand, isn’t there?), for those who realize that delivery is never perfect, the fact that the perception of quality can be enhanced by strong relationships is empowering.
Relationship building requires many abilities — communication, persuasion and conflict management among them — all founded upon emotional intelligence. These abilities all need to be applied in the day-to-day pursuit of planning, organizing, delegating and executing. If your team is delivering day after day without receiving the recognition it deserves, take a look at how you are managing the soft side of delivery. In our experience, we have found that there are two common barriers to building relationships: being selfish and confining your interactions to formal meetings.
Be the Guy Next to You
It’s part of the human condition to live inside one’s own head, to assume that others have the same emotional needs, thinking styles and approaches to decision making that you do. The Army uses the motto, “Be the guy next to you,” to communicate the need to understand the other person’s perspective. The best way to understand “the guy next to you” is to observe him and to use one of the personality preference tools, such as Myers Briggs, to figure out how to best interact with him (for instance, through informal or formal agendas; making chit-chat or getting right to the point; giving him time to process or pushing for quick decisions). Most professionals have taken these personality tests at least once in their career but don’t understand the power of the tool because they use them to understand themselves rather than to understand others.
Once you are armed with these insights, make sure you aren’t selfish in your interactions with others. You can’t build relationships if you are always taking and never giving. Some people are users and everyone knows it. One IT executive, Mrs. Cold, called me recently and asked for a favor. We hadn’t spoken in a long time and the call began without the necessary tea and cookies (no “How are you?” or “How are the kids?”); instead, she dived right in to business. The interaction was cold and elicited from me a correspondingly cold response. Consequently, she didn’t receive the help she was looking for. Mrs. Cold delivers, and she manages up well, but she doesn’t invest in lateral or downward relationships. One day, when one of her projects stumbles and she turns for help to those she has casually dismissed, she will find herself standing all alone.
One of the most powerful concepts in influence is the idea of reciprocity, defined by Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice, as people repaying in kind (both positively and negatively). If you give without expecting something in return — something relevant to the other individual — others will be inclined to return the favor. Mrs. Cold would have evoked a different response from me if she had maintained regular contact, begun the exchange by focusing outwardly instead of upon her own needs, or followed up with some type of repayment (for example, an introduction to someone I wanted to meet, or a simple thank you note).
Meet Outside of Meetings
Relationships aren’t built in conference rooms, through email or over the phone. Relationships are built one-on-one while traveling (attending conferences, touring the field, on planes), over coffee and lunch and in social settings. For example, consider the executive who is remarkable in his ability to get his team organized and deliver the goods. Mr. Substance should be the next CIO but probably won’t be. The problem is, he’s all business, all the time. Once you get to know him, he’s delightful. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get out of his office, leave his decks and charts behind and interact with others in casual settings.
Another influence principle of Cialdini’s is that of liking: people like people who like them. Mr. Substance doesn’t reach out to others one-on-one because he is focused on what to say rather than on what to ask. Getting others to talk — and listening in an active, as opposed to a passive way in which you are just waiting for them to finish so you can say your piece — is the best way to identify common values, interests, pressures and goals. Successful questioning doesn’t look like a courtroom scene in “Law and Order,” with one person doing all the talking. It looks like a tennis game: serve up the question, return with added spin, pace or direction, and respond accordingly. It’s amazing how often people don’t play the conversation from where it landed and instead just pick up and ball and move it to another part of the court by ignoring their partner’s response and changing the subject.
Relationships make work meaningful. Not only in the way they humanize daily existence, but in how they ensure that good work is recognized, rewarded and well used. It’s through relationships that you will be able to apply the tenets of marketing (“Tell them what you are going to do, tell them that you are doing it, and tell them that you got it done”) in a way that isn’t viewed as self serving but in a way that serves others.
Susan Cramm, former CIO and vice president of IT at Taco Bell and CFO and executive vice president at Chevys, a Taco Bell subsidiary, is president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm based in San Clemente, Calif. You can contact Susan at email@example.com and learn more about Valuedance at www.valuedance.com.