We think of work relationships - particularly with people who report to us - as very different from the relationships we have with friends and family. And for good reason. We have to hire and fire the people who report to us. We give performance feedback, and at times, it can be critical. There are different rules governing how we interact with the people who work for us and the people with whom we break bread.
But your work relationships are no less significant than your personal relationships. In most cases, you spend at least a third of your life at work (probably way more); and chances are you clock more hours with the people working for you than with your partner, children, or friends. These work relationships matter.
Yet, we don’t treat them with the same level of care that we do our personal relationships. I think back to when I first moved to Charlottesville; I had to make all new friends and start a new job. One of the strongest friendships I’ve developed started with a lunch date. We sat down at Eppie’s (a great restaurant on our downtown mall, RIP) and began asking each other all types of questions. “What’s it like to be new to a small town like this?” “Wow, you recently finished your PhD; what’s it been like to move from student to professional?” “What do you enjoy doing on the weekend?” You get the idea. By the end of our lunch, I knew a lot more about what made this new friend tick, what she valued, and who she was as a person. Years later, we are extremely close and reminisce about getting to know one another, and even that special lunch!
Let’s compare that lunch with the first meeting I had with one of the people working for me. We sat down in her office and after a few formalities, she began showing me different marketing collateral and handed over the login information for our CMS. I asked her to explain the email marketing system and how we generated leads. By the end of the meeting, I could get into several systems and begin emailing prospects. What I couldn’t do was understand why I would want to get into these systems, how I should interact with potential clients, and who at my company might be able to help me get this work done. I’d done nothing to build rapport or connection with my colleague. Not only would this make it harder to get things done; it just felt icky.
This last story might seem drastic (and yes, as the new boss, this was my fault), but I watch it happen all the time. We are so busy at work, just trying to get through our to-do lists that we miss the opportunity to build a connection and ultimately, make our jobs easier and more enjoyable.
The good news is that creating meaningful relationships with the people you work with doesn’t have to be super time consuming, and in the end, will actually save you time. The better you know your colleagues and what motivates them, the easier it will be to communicate, motivate, and GSD. Plus, the more intentional you are in how you design your work relationships, the more fun you’ll have. And given that we spend most of our waking hours in the office, isn't’ that a good thing?
Here are some quick strategies to help you build stronger relationships with your colleagues:
Whether you’re starting a new position or just making some changes in your leadership, one of the first things you should do is design the relationship. In coaching, we call this designing the alliance. In tech, it’s a form of norming. Whatever you call it, it’s co-creating the container in which you and the other person (or you and a team) will work together. The purpose is to have a very intentional conversation that clarifies what you both need to be successful in working together. You might ask questions like:
How can I bring out the best in you?
How do you like to receive feedback?
How are we going to work together when things get challenging?
What will build trust and confidence in this relationship?
You also get to share what you need and expect. Note: it’s not a telling, it’s a sharing. You want to make sure that what you’re setting up will work for both parties in the relationship. As you have these conversations, you’ll notice that they become easier and more authentic, and you may find yourself having these conversations with your partner, friends, kids, etc.
Remember they’re whole people
The people working for you are not robots who have nothing going on outside of work. They’re real people with real families, friends, problems, and celebrations. As the boss, it’s your job to help them bring their whole selves to the office. A great way to do this is to ask them about their life story. You can do this over coffee or during a longer meeting (though I recommend giving people a heads up so that they’re not taken off guard!).
This is the most fun conversation (and perhaps some of the most fun you’ll have at work!). It’s an opportunity to really get to know the people who work for you. You might start by saying: Beginning with childhood, tell me about your life.
As they tell their stories, interrupt and ask questions. Focus on where they made changes and ask why them made certain decisions. Try to pull out any values or motivations you hear; then write them down and ask about them.
Note: Don’t look for answers or play a therapist role; you’re just trying to get to know them better. This is personal; most people love this, but be aware if someone gets uncomfortable and don’t pry.
Find out about their dreams
When was the last time your boss asked you about your dreams? I’m not talking about your long-term professional goals. I’m talking about your dreams. I know that this might sound weird to discuss with your colleagues, but I promise it will be one of the most powerful conversations of their career. This is the stuff people come back and thank you for years later.
And the use of the word “dreams” is intentional. When you ask for professional goals or someone's long-term career plan, your direct reports will immediately turn to what they think they should say or what they think you want to hear. You’ll get the professional answer. But what you’re looking to pull out in this conversation is more human. It’s not about promotions and titles.
Chances are that your people won’t know the answer. They probably haven’t been asked and haven’t spent much time on it. Most of us don’t. But when we have the opportunity to reflect on this, incredible things can happen.
Again, give your people a heads up so they know it’s coming and give them time to think about it. You get to help them understand and articulate their future. Remind them that it’s not set in stone, but rather, it’s meant to serve as a guiding light. And you can turn on new lights all of the time.
Once you’ve gotten to know about someone’s past and someone’s future, you need to bring it back to the present. This is where it gets tangible and truly meaningful. Your role as a leader is to help them find opportunities to work toward their dreams and serve the priorities of the company. My guess is that these ideas will begin bubbling throughout the previous conversations. But start putting pen to paper and creating some accountability. Who will do what, by when?
Maybe there’s an upcoming conference that they could present at? Perhaps you can get them some training that will serve the organizational goals and move them closer to what they aspire to. This is where you get to work together to open doors and get your people motivated.
Redesign, redesign, redesign
These conversations are so fun, and there’s usually a big lift in morale as you begin having them. The trick is to not have them be one-and-done initiatives. Come back to your relationship design regularly and see what’s working (do more of that) and what’s not (figure out how to make a change). Continue to ask about dreams and constantly be on the lookout for ways to support them. If you’re like me, you’ll probably want to put some reminders in your calendar or it will quickly slip away as the work mounts.
While this may seem like a lot to do, don’t let it overwhelm you. These conversations can be had over time and ultimately, will make it easier to get your work done. The people who work for you will be more engaged and you’ll actually enjoy the time you spend together. And perhaps years later, your colleagues will come back and thank you for that lunch where you asked them about their dreams!