Far too many of us have had poor experiences of working relationships. I’ve had many of those myself. And if I look back honestly at every job, volunteer role and activity that I moved away from because I no longer loved it, they all started going wrong when the relationships took a turn for the worse.
But here is the thing that no one talks about. Relationships don’t just happen. You have to work at them.
We all know this when it comes to friendships, marriage, even children. When it is a good relationship there is a sense of ease and lightness. But from time-to-time even the easiest simplest relationships require some effort to maintain them at that fabulous level of flow and ease. And those are with the people that you get to choose to work with.
So here is the big secret, that really shouldn’t be a secret at all about leadership: its about relationship building and maintenance as much as it is about ideas and strategy.
Leadership is as much about relationships as it is about ideas and strategy. Without good relationships your impact is limited to what you alone can achieve.
So how do you cultivate good relationships at work?
As with all relationships, you need to build trust, respect, rapport and above all else good communication.
Almost every poor relationship I have either personally experienced or helped someone handle has at the root of it had a communication issue. These vary from someone just not communicating at all, to assumptions about what a lack of communication means. I have yet to meet the perfect communicator (if such a person exists!). Which means that there is always room for improvement. And before you say that you don’t have time, remember that your relationships at work, whether with your peers, bosses or those that report to you, are all required for you to do your job well and to help you make the impact you want to have. So invest in your communication, improve your working relationships and reap the productivity reward.
Here are my top tips for improving effective communication to build powerful, meaningful and healthy working relationships
- Listen! Communication is best when it is two-way. No one wants to just receive and not be heard. Read the post on Leading by Listening to work on your listening skills as a leader.
- Empower your team. Great communication is specific and not overwhelming. That means you need to let go of a lot of the minutiae that take all your time. Empowering your team to make decisions will free up your time for useful communication and at the same time builds the expertise and buy-in of your team. Just make sure you give your team a framework for making decisions, clarity on where and when they are allowed to make decisions and when they should escalate to you. Then tell them that you are behind them. That is the most important thing to communicate!
- Overcommunicate priorities. Priorities get dropped when we aren’t reminded of them, and that applies at work as much to your new year resolutions! Agree priorities and then get everyone to talk about how they progressed those priorities everyday. Make sure everyone reaffirms their commitment to the top priority for the team/business ever day.
- Write down decisions, share them and check everyone agrees. There are so many times that disagreements occur because a verbal decision was made, acted on, but everyone wasn’t quite on the same page. This causes resentment and loss of productivity. Write decisions down and send them round.
- Have regular checkins. I am a big believer in exception reporting, but there is still a place for regular checkins. Update meetings where everyone just states the obvious and listens to everyone else for 50 minutes should be avoided, but everyone still needs to know that things are on track. This can be done by writing an update email (or use a project management tool). But you still need to provide regular checkins, or opportunities for checkins to ensure team members are not stuck. Set the expectation that you are there to solve problems and help people move forward. This requires different things for different people, but is possible with everyone.
One you have your communication on-point, here are a few other tips and tricks for building and maintaining great relationships at work:
- Make an effort to have casual social conversations. People are human beings first, workers second. Taking the time to get to know someone, understand what makes them sad, happy, stressed, or what lights them up can go a long way to making them feel more respected as a human first and less like a worker bee. And it gives you insight into how to help them be effective and productive, and the opportunity to watch out for situations where productivity drops for reasons that you might not be initially aware of.
- Get behind your team’s decisions. Once your team feels empowered to make decisions it is important that you back their decisions even if they are not exactly the decision you would make. You can take the time later to explain how you might have done something differently and the benefits of that if you need to, but make sure they know you have their back.
- Practice patience. Life is full of lots of things that must be done today (or yesterday), and expectations! And it is very easy to assume that your staff just don’t work hard enough. Before you lose your patience with someone, ask them what is really on their plate. Listen and find out how long something really takes. It is very easy to forget how long something takes that seems simple if we have been delegating that task for years.
- Avoid gossip. Never engage in gossip and if possible stop it. It is never helpful and never achieves anything.
- Be open, honest and transparent as much as possible. We’ve all had examples of bosses who seem to enjoy keeping secrets and all it does is encourage discontent at best, gossip at worse. Often those people were holding things back for the best reasons, but just didn’t understand the consequences of apparently hiding things. That doesn’t mean that everything needs to be shared all of the time or that you have to share business secrets with everyone. But create a culture of transparency whenever it is possible. Often a lack of transparency comes from a concern of overwhelming people, but is then poorly implemented. Yes it is possible to overwhelm, but that generally comes from not knowing what to do and needing to make too many decisions. Overwhelm also comes from dumping something onto someone that they weren’t expecting that is a big change. So if you know something big is coming tell people about it, let them emotionally prepare, but just make sure that they know they don’t have anything they need to do right now or any decisions to make.
- Remember that everyone is an individual. Your team, staff and colleagues are humans with individual needs, personalities and complexities. Just because you love to work in the office and have drop-by meetings doesn’t mean they do. Just because you find picking up the telephone the best way to solve a problem, doesn’t mean that they do. Get to know people and allow them to work in a way that allows them to shine in the way they need to, not in the way you think everyone should, just because that way works for you.
There are many components that go into building and maintaining strong, healthy and respectful work relationships, but start by just implementing a few of the above and see where it takes you.