When I get asked what my “superpowers” at work are, one of the things I mention is my ability to build strong relationships, quickly, across a company. It doesn’t matter if it’s QA or sales or fulfillment or finance, I can build deep relationships quicker than most people I know.
It may seem like an odd thing to claim as a specialty, seeing as it takes no obvious talent. But it’s not something everyone does well, and it is tremendously valuable, especially in a role that is all about leading through influence.
Having strong connections with coworkers starts from a place of trust and ends with observation and empathy. In the middle is a lot of putting in the time and likely getting out of your comfort zone.
Ready to go? Let’s get interpersonal!
Separate Work and Personal
Let’s start with the “lowest hanging fruit,” as they say. Lock down your social accounts from coworkers. Work life and personal life are separate entities, and you don’t need to be the same person in both places. I never “friend” coworkers unless we have become legitimate friends outside of work, or until one of us leaves the company.
Why? Seems stuffy, right? Because you need to be in control of what you share and who you present yourself to be in the work setting, and if your personal activities are there for the world to see, you lose that ability to craft your persona.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t bring your “whole self” to work. I truly believe you should, and that you should do it intentionally. Let the choice be yours when to reveal something rather than reacting emotionally because you haven’t put aside personal feelings before walking into work.
Locking your accounts down can also save you from some uncomfortable moments. The day I made my Instagram private was the day that a coworker (whom I really didn’t like all that much) stopped by my desk in the morning and expectantly asked me where the muffins were. I was thrown off, as I had brought muffins that morning for my coworkers. But I hadn’t told anyone about them yet. I quickly realized that he was referencing an Instagram post from the night before where I snapped a picture of the muffins as I made them. And that was the last time a coworker could peep in on my personal doings unless I explicitly chose to reveal them.
Hone Your Perception
The starting point in building good relationships with coworkers is to develop a mental baseline for that person and pay attention to when something changes. Is Sarah a natural pessimist? Does she always think she’s going to get fired? How about Mark? Is he naturally outgoing, or is he more reserved? Does Diane avoid eye contact when she’s nervous?
For all your most frequent coworkers, watch how they interact in different situations to develop a mental model of them as people. Remember that some people shine in different settings, so don’t form a premature picture based just on one setting. Look at casual daily interactions, formal meetings, and other points of contact throughout a week.
It’s also worth getting to know these people as…people. Does Matt have kids? Are Thursdays particularly stressful for him because he’s responsible for daycare drop-off and pickup and feels like he doesn’t have enough time? These are important data points to catalog.
Once you’ve got a baseline for your closest colleagues, pay attention to when it changes. This can be so subtle, and it takes practice to notice. It’s minor changes, things other people might not notice. I once hung up a video call with a colleague in an offshore office and turned to my CTO and my product manager and said offhand, “boy, NAME has seemed cranky lately! Is something going on with him?”
They both stared at me, having missed the signs I picked up on. I saw him not smiling, keeping the meeting shorter and more focused than usual, and rushing to disconnect. A few days later, the CTO (his manager) pulled me aside to thank me for the comment and let me know he had followed up on it. The person was dealing with some personal challenges and appreciated the check in.
Do What You Say You’re Going to Do
When it comes to building relationships, it’s all about trust. And the single biggest way to build trust at work is to do what you say you’re going to do. Big and small, day in and day out, do what you say you’re going to do.
When you do what you say you’re going to do, you show the person you committed to: You matter. You are important enough that I want to keep my promise to you. Your relationship means enough to me that in the midst of my busy day, I made a point to remember.
That feeling of being seen, of being important enough to be remembered, is powerful. It sticks with you.
I remember the first time I was on the receiving end of this, and it was meaningful enough that I can recall it almost 20 years later. I had a friend in high school named Susan, one of the most popular girls in school. She had this incredible way of making you feel like when she was talking to you, you were the only person who mattered. It came naturally to her, and it made being around her addictive.
Now, most of us aren’t like Susan, and you have to work real hard at making people feel special…or even keeping your full attention on them. If you’re like me, you may have the best intentions, but forget when you have made a promise to follow up on something raised in a meeting. Or you may commit to something without really thinking about your ability to deliver on time when considered against your other priorities.
To get around this, I’ve learned to take notes. Keep a running to-do list somewhere (Evernote, Google Keep, voice memos, Tasks, whatever works for you). Update the list as you make a commitment, and check the list before raising your hand to volunteer.
Don’t Speak Ill of the Living
How good does it feel to complain about someone? Oftentimes, really damn good. What if that person is your boss? And the only person around to complain to is your direct report? Oooh it can still feel really good. For a day.
Go take a walk. Call your best friend. Journal it. But be real careful before you go complaining to a coworker about another coworker, and least of all, your boss. Part of being professional is managing conflict 1:1, and a huge aspect of that is controlling when and to whom you complain.
When you’re calm, set a game plan for how you’re going to handle the emotions that inevitably come with work. Do you have a trusted coworker you can let off steam with? Ok, but do it carefully. Do it in a limited manner, or your entire relationship will become toxic. Find an outside outlet for working through your feelings so you can come back in and address conflict positively, privately, with the person in question.
Take stock of your current situation. How willing are people to work with you? Do you have team members eager to join your team when there is an opening, or do you struggle to recruit, even internally? When you propose a meeting, are people willing to attend or do you have to work to get a quorum? Do people pay attention when you talk, or do they get distracted with email and chat?
If you’re not getting the kind of support and interactions you’d like from colleagues, you need to put in more work.
“But wait!” You say. “This person is an asshole. He treats everyone this way.” Can’t be true. He doesn’t treat everyone that way, or he wouldn’t have a job (or a company, if he’s the leader).
Don’t like the person? Do the work anyway. I’ve had positive working relationships with people I didn’t like. With people I didn’t respect. With people who I am amazed to see go on to do great things.
Liking someone is not a prerequisite to working well with them.
It certainly helps, but it’s not enough to say that they’re just not a nice person and ignore the situation. Not if you truly want to build stronger relationships at work.
Win the Skeptics
You’re always going to run into people who think you insincere and who question your motives for getting to know them. As they say in my son’s Montessori program, treat everyone with “grace and courtesy.” Prove through your repeated actions that you are actually interested in their wellbeing, and that you’re not out to get ahead by stepping on them.
Repeated good faith is sometimes the only way to win a skeptic over, and frankly, you don’t have any control over someone’s opinion of you. Live your truth, do things for the right reasons, and keep that mantra of grace and courtesy alive.
The secret to strong work relationships is a mixture of building trust, revealing yourself at the right times, keeping your word, and putting in the work. Get to know people as people before coworkers, and invest in strengthening those ties as humans with commonalities so you can recognize when something is off and support your coworker. The rest – influence, trust, clout – it all comes from that feeling of being seen and knowing that whatever you share will be followed up on.
Image Credit: Holly Maguire
Also published on Medium.