The 5 Biggest Mistakes You're Making With Work Relationships

A major telecommunications company once commissioned some research to find out which attributes best predicted long-term leadership success. Why did some leaders succeed while others never really lived up to expectations? After examining a variety of factors—including tenacity, intelligence, work ethic, ingenuity—they discovered that the ability to build and leverage a network of relationships was the best predictor of success.

Building collaborative work relationships is a challenge for many people. Relationship building is generally not taught in schools and it’s rarely taught to those who join the managerial ranks. There is a big problem with that.

Today’s work challenges require the best efforts of a group of committed people who are working toward a common goal. While one person working alone can have an impact, your role as a leader is to guide your team to accomplish bigger goals than they could achieve on their own.

Many people are tapped for leadership positions because of their strong individual skills and knowledge. Yet their past experience of being “the smartest person in the room” can often keep them from developing the ability to draw out the best from others.

Building stronger work relationships

Making the transition from individual contributor to group leader begins with helping others achieve their goals, so that your agreed-upon vision can come alive.

The key is to shift from thinking only about yourself and what you want to accomplish to thinking about the people you are leading. What are they trying to accomplish? What are their key responsibility areas and how can you help them? Assuming that their tasks and goals are in alignment with overall organizational objectives, by helping them get their work done, you are assuring that organizational goals will be attained.

Some common mistakes

People want to follow leaders who have a clear sense of where they are going, a demonstrated concern for others, and a focus on results. You want to be seen as a person who is an ally and who gets things done.

Relationship building is about being a positive factor in someone else's life. Does the person see you as someone who is helping them along the way? Are you adding value to that person’s life? Or are you actually inhibiting the other person’s success?

Here are 5 common mistakes people make when building relationships at work. Hopefully, you won’t see yourself in any of these examples. If you do, keep reading and we’ll share some strategies for getting back on track.

1. Taking before giving. The best work relationships feature a reciprocal give-and-take. Your goal in the beginning is to build up some reserves in another person’s emotional bank account that you can draw on during the inevitable rough spots that happen in all relationships. But you have to be careful with this. If people get a sense that you're only doing something because you expect something in return, the relationship can fall apart.

The art of building relationships is to give as much as you can with no immediate expectation of return in mind. Work is going to create goals and deadlines that will be important to both of you. Again, keep others’ needs in mind. If you establish the relationship first, you’ll be in a better position to accomplish more together.

2. Being an opportunistic relationship builder. Some people are very status conscious when it comes to building relationships. These people focus on establishing relationships with people they perceive to be important in the hierarchy. They don’t put nearly as much energy into those they view as low on the totem pole.

We had a coaching client like this once. He got along well with his peers and superiors, but his direct reports resented, feared, and genuinely disliked him. This limited his effectiveness in the organization. As a leader, you're only as good as the people you're leading.

3. Seeing relationship building as playing office politics. Some people act as if they’re above it all. They wrongly believe that their knowledge and skills are all the organization requires from them, so they see no need for relationship building.

You'll often see this in technical occupations where professionals have generated all their success through what they know instead of who they know. They’re genuinely excited about mastering their skills and crafts. While it is important to be highly skilled in your specific area of expertise, you also want to build strong collaboration skills that allow you to work on large-scale group projects. There's more to organizational success than individuals coming up with good answers.

4. Forgetting about results. Other people make the opposite mistake—they overuse the relationship card. These people act as if good relationships can make up for a lack of knowledge and skills. It's important to remember that a primary reason to cultivate good work relationships is to better accomplish organizational goals.

Focusing on results usually isn't a problem with new employees. People come into organizations knowing there are tasks they need to accomplish. But over time relationships can change in a way that undermines performance. If a relationship starts to focus mainly on emotional support, both parties may forget that work is about getting something accomplished. Many work relationships are ineffective because they have become detached from achieving organizational objectives.

5. Limiting your relationship circle. Another mistake leaders make—particularly early in their careers—is to develop relationships only with people who are similar to them or who belong in their peer group. The best leaders are the ones who develop relationships with people who are not like them—for example, those who work in different departments, have different skill sets, or belong to different peer groups.

Evaluate where you are

The best way to begin building authentic relationships is to map out your current relationships. This involves sitting down with a piece of paper and creating a map of each person you have a relationship with at work. Do a quick assessment of those relationships by asking yourself three sets of questions about each person:

  • Do you know what is important to them? Do you know what they are really after and what their priorities are? If you don't, there's probably a gap you need to address.
  • Do you know anything personal about them? Are they a parent? What's happening with their family? What do they like to do during off-hours?  Get to know the complete person.
  • Is your current relationship positive, neutral, or negative with that person?  If it is negative ask yourself, “What could happen if this relationship continues to be bad or gets worse? Could it eventually threaten me or my organization?”

By creating and studying a relationship map, you may find problem areas that could cause trouble later. From there, you can begin to identify and develop strategies for improving those relationships.

Let’s do lunch

A great place to start building any relationship is to take some time to get to know more about the other person. Select one of the neutral or negative relationships you identified on your relationship map and invite that person to lunch. Spend most of the meal listening to them and asking questions. People enjoy being in a relationship with someone who is generally interested in them.

The opposite is true as well. We've all had the dissatisfying experience of having dinner with someone who never asks us a single question about ourselves. Think about the people you most enjoy talking with. They are probably the ones who are most interested in what you're doing, what's important to you, and what's happening in your life. Use that same strategy to build relationships with others.

Leading is relating

The higher you go in an organization, the more important it becomes to maintain the good relationships you have established over the years. Human beings want to work with people they know and like. Those who inspire trust and demonstrate a true understanding of others' concerns and aspirations are the people who are lifted up for leadership. 

Whatever you do, don’t avoid or ignore the people aspect of work. Keeping to yourself and focusing only on your work might help you avoid the negative aspects of relationships, but it will also limit your ability to grow within the organization and have the biggest impact.

Scott Blanchard is the cofounder of Blanchard Certified, a new cloud-based leadership development resource and experience. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard or @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

[Image: Flickr user Darwin Bell]

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2 Comments

  • Greg Bargeton

    Just as food for thought, but to quote Tom Hodgkinson in his excellent "How to be Idle", isn't all this "....a euphemistic reframing of moral virtues in the language of competitive commerce"?

  • Grant Crowell

    Thanks for sharing, Ken and Scott! So, taking your own question, who are the people YOU both have lasting relationships with that are the most DISSIMILAR to you, and how so?