Our Relationship with Relationships


Part of growing our interpersonal aptitude is recognizing our interpersonal differences.

From the increasing demand for Soft Skills in technical workers, to the growth in Net Promotor Score, Account Based Marketing, and other affinity-driven marketing models, relationships are everywhere in business buzz.

As they should be! Little gets done in the business world without alignment and agreement. We need clients to hire us, bosses to authorize projects, loyal customers to buy, and colleagues to collaborate. Whether we work in tech, design, or politics, our best ideas go nowhere when we can’t persuade others to come along.

But just as our relationship-building skills can bring us huge business advantages, some relationship-building approaches can be a hindrance.

I wrote last month about the role our personal histories can play in our working world. And few experiences leave more scars and lessons than our relationships. When we are new in our career, we have to learn how to build workplace relationships very different from the dynamics of family or school. As we gain experience, we make workplace friends and enemies, thrive on strongly collaborative teams, struggle in toxic workplaces, and build an increasingly complex history of our connections to other people.

Just as with all other forms of workplace diversity, our style of relationship-building is as varied as all our other individual traits. These can be simple personality differences, or deep-seated personal challenges. But our tone-deaf, painfully shy, or impulsive colleagues may have invaluable skills and knowledge to offer, even when their charm is lacking.

And indeed… understanding the diversity of relationship styles can itself be a path to better business relationships.

Dig under the surface of any sizable team and you’ll uncover hidden differences and disconnections. Nepotism, bias, and uneven playing fields can quietly chip away at collaboration and rot morale. Many corporate cultures knowingly or unknowingly favor specific styles, leaving outliers at a career disadvantage:

  • Favoring particular personality traits—such as aggressiveness, indirectness, or conformity—benefits those who come that way over those who must learn to achieve “culture fit”.
  • Centering on specific communication channels, such as spoken presentations or written reports, gives preference to those who thrive with one medium over another.
  • Cliques, cabals, and in-groups can quietly form under the guise of friendliness and mentorship.
  • Hidden power dynamics can interfere with valuable insights and information transfer when the external consultant, the star player, or the highest-paid person are implicitly assumed to be more knowledgeable than quieter, less prestigious experts.

Regardless of your role, or the team, or teams, with which you interact, avoid relationship assumptions that can undermine your best efforts:

  • Do not expect other people to be you. Not everyone enjoys receiving public praise or giving public speeches. Some people need help remembering to listen, others need encouragement to speak up. Regardless of your own style, when you observe and learn from the attitudes of people around you, you will find ways to bridge these gaps.
  • Refrain from the urge to armchair-diagnose your colleagues’ mental health. Socially awkward does not mean autism-spectrum, stage fright is not synonymous with clinical anxiety, and not all jerks are narcissists.
  • Watch your bias. Are you judging the same behaviors differently because of what a person looks like? Are you letting people be their whole selves, including any harmless quirks, regardless of why you think they got that way?
  • Remember, you’re not being kind by keeping truly difficult people around. Unethical, toxic people will poison teams, undermine morale, and generally be more trouble than they are worth.

So what can you do to help everyone you work with be better connected and involved?

  • Recognize the under-spoken and poorly-articulated colleagues around you. Help them make their good ideas better known and understood.
  • You should never tolerate abuse, of yourself or anyone around you. But sometimes, briskness and rudeness from an otherwise well-intentioned colleague need not be taken personally. Some people get a little rough around the edges when they are passionate, problem-solving, or under stress. Look at the big-picture working relationship rather than a few stressful interactions.
  • Observe, and try to follow, the cues people give you about their communication style. That colleague who always replies to your voicemails with an email, or never responds promptly to an instant message? They are trying to tell you something. When you can communicate the way they are more comfortable, you’re likely to have a better conversation.
  • Be ready to be wrong. A willingness to hear new information, change your mind, and give credit where it’s due is one of the most powerful ways to build trust.

Whether human interaction comes easily to you, or you’re someone who struggles, you can do more than improve your own relationships. You can help everyone you work with improve their relationship with relationships—collaborative, connected, and kind.

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