If you were to think about the relationship you have with your best friend, you could likely identify several characteristics that define it. Without a doubt, the relationship was formed around one of a number of important factors such as a shared experience, a common interest, or even just a long period of interaction. But when it comes to work, we don’t often think of others this way. We want to distance ourselves from our team, and don’t want to risk the chance that a deeper relationship will impact our ability to lead.
While we might have forged a strong tie with someone after a particularly tough assignment, or shared an office with someone for many years, we don’t necessarily think of them as a ‘best friend’ in the typical sense of the term. And if you are a leader, you are likely even more distanced from those you lead because you need to maintain your objectivity and professional relationship. But, if you really want to influence those around you, whether you are a leader or not, you need to be able to develop a strong, and lasting relationship.
In my past few posts, I’ve talked about the importance of influence, and how being effective at influence requires you to have a number of key skills. Communication, simplification, relationship building and making connections are all critical skills. The most long-lasting of these skills is relationship building, and is the one that will serve you the best in tough times.
Some of you may think that you just aren’t that type of leader. You like your team, but when the word ‘relationship’ comes out, it immediately makes you think of the uncomfortable off-site meeting you had where you had to play a silly game or share something deeply personal with the team. That’s not the kind of relationship building I’m referring to in this article, but if you are one of those folks, don’t discount the importance of the occasional off site as well!
What does having good relationships do for you as a leader? Besides just making you a better person, there are a number of other benefits to taking the time to build a strong relationship with your team.
- It builds trust. If you are going to really have influence on others, they have to trust you, first and foremost. Without trust, they might do what you are asking, but it will be for the wrong reasons. They might follow along out of fear or obligation, but their heart won’t be in it, and they will always be wondering what’s in it for them. Developing a relationship develops trust, and trust will make people follow you in situations where they might not otherwise.
- It makes you human. As a leader, it’s easy to be the object of a lot of derision and complaint. Your motives are often suspect to those who aren’t leaders, and there is a sense that everything you do is only to help yourself, your career, and your organization. While these are important things to be concerned with, we all know as leaders that we really do care about more than just the business. You wouldn’t have gotten to where you are if that wasn’t the case. But if you can develop a genuine relationship with your team, they will quickly lose the sense of distrust and know that you do what you do for the good of everyone, not just what benefits you.
- It encourages two-way dialog. Early in my career, I wasn’t sure that I had leaders who cared what I thought, or valued my opinions. Looking back, I see this had a lot to do with my own perceptions, but those perceptions were based on my experiences. I had a couple of great leaders in my life, but the times when I didn’t feel like the leader cared were those times when they also didn’t seem to want to develop a relationship with me. I wasn’t looking for a deep and personal relationship, but would have valued their opinion and advice. That wasn’t forthcoming.
- It improves employee engagement. Employee engagement is one of the most misunderstood, yet most talked-about topics. Companies spend millions of dollars trying to understand what they need to do to keep their employees happy, fulfilled, and ultimately engaged. And yet they spend much less on training leaders how to effectively develop relationships with their direct reports. With only 32 percent of employees feeling engaged according to the most recent Gallup survey, staff engagement is a strategic imperative to the business well-being. But, according to a recent study conducted by MSW Research and Dale Carnegie Training, the relationship with immediate supervisor was the number one contributor to overall employee engagement, or dis-engagement. Relationships trump benefits and pay every day!
- It promotes safety. In the study mentioned above, when Gallup looked at what made an effective leader in an organization, they found that leaders who develop close relationships with their team are actually promoting a sense of safety. When someone feels like they can speak their mind, their opinions will be valued, and they can experiment and share information, they are more likely to feel engaged at work. By developing a relationship with your team, you are making them feel secure, and that will reap big rewards in the long term.
If you’re one of those I mentioned above who said you just aren’t good at developing work relationships, or only see this as a way to be more ‘touchy feely’ at work, let me give you a few ideas that will help you start to develop those relationships.
- Take time to learn something personal. IBM used to encourage their sales teams to make sure they ‘noticed the walls’ of their clients. This meant that they wanted them to take the time to learn about the client as a person. There are a number of values that come from this, not the least of which is the knowledge of the client as a person, and not just a contract. But you have to be careful here. You can’t fake this. You need to be genuinely interested in learning something new, seeing how you and your team might connect, and make an honest effort to know them personally. This can be difficult when you feel overworked and pressed for time. But it’s a critical step to building that relationship.
- Make contact when nothing is at stake. Nothing says you don’t care quite like only talking to someone when you need something. I have had bosses who would never grace the door of my office until they needed something. It was those leaders who I knew really didn’t care about me as a person, and likely didn’t see me as anything as more than a way to get something done. If you only show up when you need something, you’re sending a strong message, even if that’s not your intent.
- Be genuine. Most of us were taught at one time or another that we had to guard our personal lives if we were going to be an effective leader. You were told that being too ‘close’ with your team only encouraged familiarity and made it hard to get them to do difficult things when you needed them. I’ve lead people for nearly 30 years, and I can tell you that this bit of advice was the worst I ever got. When you try to keep your distance from your team, all you do is make yourself seem more impersonal and uncaring. That, in effect, alienates your team, and puts you in an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. You are human, and people love to work for fellow humans who don’t have it all figured out as well. But, please don’t read this wrong. There are some necessary, and important boundaries you need to keep as a leader, but that boundary should never keep you from being genuine.
- Find something in common… anything. This might fit into some of the other points, but it’s important enough that it merits its own. If you think back to your best friend, what you had in common is what made you close. The same goes for work. If you can find some common interest, hobby or even outside relationship, you can break down artificial barriers much more quickly. My love of fly fishing has led to a number of great relationships outside of the context of work. In other cases, shared interest in mission work has led to stronger relationships with those I work with that might not have existed otherwise. Don’t be afraid to find out what you have in common with your team. It’s the best way to develop a strong relationship — even a love of fancy socks might be the ticket to improved relationships!
- Get face time. Some people find face-to-face conversations difficult, and even draining. I have actually had folks tell me that having to hear about their team’s personal lives was ‘sucking the life out of them!’ To avoid this draining feeling, they choose instead to carry on all conversations with their team members via email or text, rarely taking the time to meet with them face to face, or even over the phone. But, as a leader, you can’t influence from a distance. You need to be in personal, and daily contact with your team to ensure they can hear from you directly. If you want to influence, you have to engage.
If you can master some of these techniques and build better relationships with the people you lead, the benefits are tremendous. When you are seen as a ‘real person’, trust goes up, and those you lead will develop an emotional stake in your success equal to the stake you take in theirs. Also, by developing relationships during normal times, when times get tough, you will be able to draw on these relationships to help you get through. In effect, if you invest in the relationships early and often, you will have created credit that you can draw on in the times when you need it most.