This is the fourth installment of the Career Path series. If you haven’t read parts 1-3, you may want to start there. The series is my attempt at sharing observations and mistakes I’ve made throughout my career which may be helpful for others on the same path.
Building relationships doesn’t sound like a very revolutionary concept. Of course we all want to get along with others and be liked, but the kind of professional relationships I’m going to describe can be a little different than what you might find amongst friends. A relationship in this context simply means people have mutual respect for one another. They listen and allow themselves to be influenced by their counterpart, and can agree on shared goals (think win-win) despite conflicting opinions.
Common interests, a deep level of trust, and the ability to be vulnerable with another person are all important elements of any close relationship. Famously, there’s research indicating employees who have a best friend in the workplace are more likely to be engaged and productive. So it’s not that friendships at work aren’t valuable and important, it’s just not ideal to limit our professional network to only include the people we like.
For many years, I didn’t think of professional relationships as they pertained to my career and only valued a few close friendships at work. I once passed a high level manager in the hall and when they addressed me by the wrong name, I didn’t even bother to stop and correct them. At the time, I didn’t care if this manager knew who I was because I couldn’t see how this person or other managers like them could help me. I thought it was better to remain anonymous; left alone to do my work as I saw fit.
When we understand how important our relationships (and later our reputations) are in a field like corrections, it becomes clear our networks must extend beyond our circle of friends, our teams, and even the organization we work for. As I eventually expanded my own network over the years, I’ve reflected on a few strategies I think are worth sharing, not just because I’ve used them with success, but because I know others have used them with me!
Whenever I talk about relationship building, I often use the word intentional. I like using this term because I think it’s important to direct our thinking – our focus – on something specific if we want to practice or apply something consistently enough to create change in our lives. When I say there was a time when I became intentional about building relationships with people in my professional life, I mean it became like a new lens through which I viewed my interactions with others. I became more mindful of my actions and how they affected those around me. I was more purposeful in my decision making and became better at managing my emotions as a result. When I became intentional about the type of relationships I wanted to have, it was like I had a compass showing me the right direction in every situation.
Now, before I go any further, I just want to add one precaution. You should absolutely be intentional about building relationships as they can be both incredibly rewarding and helpful in building your career, but I don’t want this message to suggest other people are simply pawns in a game or create a sense that professional relationships are merely transactional in nature. I’m going to make suggestions based on what has worked for and with me, but even the best strategy will fail if you aren’t being authentic in your actions and intentions.
People can sense when someone is truly trying to understand what they’re going through or when they are genuinely asking for help as opposed to someone asking hollow questions or attempting to arrange some sort of quid pro quo. There are a lot of ways to successfully build relationships throughout your career but I promise you, if you aren’t authentic, none of it will work in the long term.
Ask For Help, Then Accept It.
I’m certainly no expert when it comes to relationships but I have become aware over time of a few approaches worth sharing. I’ll start with two I’ve found effective and include one to avoid.
The first is the simplest, most effective approach, but probably the hardest to practice because it requires humbling yourself first. It’s simple, not easy: ask for help! I know that may sound easy, but remember, I’m not talking about asking your friends or just the people you like or admire. I’m suggesting you approach that supervisor, that peer or even that subordinate; present them with a real dilemma you have, and ask for their advice. Now I’ve seen this disarm some pretty big egos but remember my precaution. This only goes well if you’re being authentic and genuine in your interaction.
The second part to this approach may be even more difficult than the first: actually listen and accept their advice. Apply at least some elements of their feedback to your dilemma. Look, it’s possible you get absolutely horrible suggestions from this person. Maybe you feel like the person is even trying to set you up for failure. After all, there’s a reason why you didn’t like them to begin with. But I’ve done this plenty of times and I’ve literally never had an experience when I humbled myself, genuinely asked for someone’s opinion or asked for help with something, and had them throw it back in my face or try to sabotage me in their response. I’m not saying take everyone’s word as gospel – I don’t think many of us do that even with the people we admire – but if you can look for elements of their feedback you can weave into your actions, then take the time to circle back and actually thank the person for their help, this person almost always will have a positive response.
Reflect, and They Will Listen
The second approach is a little more nuanced but can be really effective with folks who for whatever reason, don’t see you as an equal or as someone worthy of influencing them. Maybe you already tried approach #1, but that only reinforced your role as a subordinate and you want the kind of relationship where your thoughts and opinions are given more respect. This person may be happy to give you advice and while they will of course be flattered to hear how much you value them, they don’t respond in kind.
I should say, this approach requires a certain level of emotional intelligence. You need to be able to read others and communicate in a way that is warm and empathetic. Now, the next time the opportunity presents itself – when the person you intend to build a relationship with is showing frustration, stress or a similar emotion – find an appropriate space and time to connect on a personal level. If you can reflect what you are observing in an empathetic fashion, that person will listen, because it’s about them. When your boss seems like they’re having an off day, take a second to think about what they might be struggling with both personally or professionally. That person is likely not going to share those issues and I’m not suggesting you pry. But take the time to empathize with that person on how difficult their job is, the different directions they are likely being pulled, and offer your support without giving advice. I’ve found this approach can really open dialogue when I’ve felt limited by my role or position.
Lastly, I’m going to include an approach I’d recommend avoiding, although some people just can’t help themselves. I’m using the word gossip here, but I suppose you could include any negative conversations that seem to build alliances between people, only it comes at the expense or detriment of others.
I think people use this approach because in the short term, it really works! Sharing rumors or piling on someone outside of the group is an easy way to make the other person feel special and I suppose conveys some level of trust given you aren’t supposed to share what’s being said with anyone else…right? Unfortunately, this approach generally does the opposite of what we want for our professional relationships, our reputations, and our careers. In the long term, we want to be viewed as a force for good, someone who can be trusted not just with sensitive information, but to make good decisions that align with values like honesty, integrity and respect. Avoid this approach if you want the kind of relationships that build careers, not hold them back.
The idea of building relationships with people we don’t like can seem like a tough pill to swallow. While I’m not suggesting anyone build a relationship with someone who is doing something unethical or illegal, I am saying strong professional relationships are necessary if you want your thoughts and opinions to matter, especially amongst those you may not like. The significance of this point is magnified even further when your leaders fall in this category. You may think you know more than them, you may think you’re right. You may even be right! But what I’ve figured out is that sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you’re right when no one will listen.
I hope this post inspires you to be more intentional about building relationships with others throughout your career. There are a lot of right ways to accomplish this and everyone has their own strengths in this area, but these concepts should be helpful for anyone on the path.