Hard Problems, Soft Answers

You know your team is delivering quality, but the organization is not seeing it. Why? Because you're not delivering on your relationships

An IT executive recently said: "As you move up in the organization, people spend more time working on politics than they do on quality."

That's a pretty depressing thought for those who've spent years developing their technical skills in the naive hope that the results will speak for themselves. But when it comes to perceptions of quality, poor relationships can cast a dull patina on even the shiniest portrait.

On the other hand, for those who realize that delivery is never perfect, the fact that the perception of quality can be enhanced by strong relationships is empowering. 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. But as the Army teaches, "It's all about the guy next to you". The best way to understand "the guy next to you" is to observe him, using one of the personality preference tools, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, to help you figure out how to best interact with him. Most professionals have taken these personality tests at least once in their careers but don't understand the power of the tool because they use them to understand themselves rather than to understand others.

Once you're armed with these insights, make sure you aren't selfish in your interactions. You can't build relationships if you are always taking and never giving. One IT executive, Mrs Cold, called me recently and asked for a favour. We hadn't spoken in a long time, and yet 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. 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 e-mail or over the phone. Relationships are built one-on-one, 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 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 the ball and move it to another part of the court by ignoring their partner's response and changing the subject.

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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 instead serves others.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of the California-based executive coaching firm Valuedance. You can e-mail feedback to susan@valuedance.com. Don Reeve is CIO at Wegmans

Reader QA

Q: I wonder how many executives understand that sometimes the keys to the outside world can come from their vendors. Many times, I do not sell services; I merely keep in touch. And if something arises where there's a fit, I mention our ability to help.

A: As a CIO, I referred vendors to my direct reports. The vendors I developed relationships with were those who had something interesting to talk about, other than their product - for example, industry and competitive insights.

Q: You say Mr Substance should probably be the next CIO because he delivers the goods but won't be because he's all business all the time. Since when has doing one's job well become a liability?

A: Doing one's job is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success as revealed by a study ("Fool vs Jerk: Whom Would You Hire?" hbswk.hbs.edu). Not surprisingly, most people choose their work partners according to two criteria. One is competence at the job; the other is likeability. What is surprising is the importance of personal feelings as a factor in judging competence. The research found that people are more likely to hire the lovable fool than the competent jerk. Polishing up your likeability may be the best way to ensure that you receive the recognition and opportunities you deserve.

Q: Can you mention other personality assessment tools, other than Myers-Briggs, that we can use to better understand "the guy next to you"?

A: Another assessment frequently used within businesses to improve awareness of self and others is the DISC personality assessment (the acronym stands for the four behaviour dimensions identified in the assessment: dominance, influence, submissiveness/steadiness and compliance/consciousness), which is based on the work of Dr William Marston

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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