Lets face it. Not all of your relationships at work are working. At least, not as well as they should be.
Working relationships are essential to manage effectively. Without them we can neither listen nor be heard. Our influence is minimal. Without a working relationship management becomes almost impossible. We resort quickly to the capability and discipline procedures and watch our working relationships go from bad to worse.
But what do we mean by a working relationship?
Even great working relationships sometimes come under strain, and I am not talking about the occasional rough patch. I am talking about the consistent failure to really connect, to bring out the best in each other. Those relationships at work that feel difficult and are characterised by mediocrity, poor communication and personal antipathy. It is important to recognise that these types of relationships are common, and they cost us a lot psychologically and in productivity! We have a choice about we handle these non-working relationships. We can put up with them and do our best in the circumstance to get the best outcomes that we can. Or we can acknowledge that the relationship isn’t right and do what we can to change it. To improve it. To make it a working relationship. One where both parties are open to feedback and willing to act on it to improve things.
What you choose to do about non-working relationships will depend on who they are with. Non-working relationship with bosses, peers and reports all have different implications and challenges and need to be thought about carefully. But there are some common characteristics to be considered.
It’s a personality thing…
This is perhaps the commonest reason I am offered for why relationships aren’t working, and it is rarely helpful. It provides a usually superficial, meaningless, pseudo explanation for why we are not able to work effectively. It does little to help the situation unless we understand the personalities involved a little and change the interactions between them to reach a more productive state. Labelling the problem as a ‘personality clash’ usually just resigns us to acceptance. Understanding personality is no trivial task, but I believe that there are some simple tools that can help us to diagnose the origins of a personality clash and offer us some possibilities to improve things. Many of us have heard of, if not been profiled with, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI. 4 dimensions, 16 types, dominant and auxiliary functions, MBTI is a very useful tool – but can get a tad complicated for use in every day management practice. So I prefer a simpler model based on similar Jungian psychology called DISC. 2 dimensions, 4 types and that’s pretty much it. It has worked well for me over the years, and is relatively easy to teach, learn and apply in real life situations – without having to call an occupational psychologist! But there are lots of personality models out there and most offer useful frameworks for thinking about how we can work better together. Choose one (or more), learn it, and use it to think about what might actually behind that personality clash that you use to explain non-working relationships. I will be teaching and using the DISC model in the forthcoming workshops on How To Be A Better Manager.
It’s a behaviour thing…
Usually behind non-working relationships are a set of behaviours that are just not hitting the mark. It is the things people say and do that make it hard, or easy, for us to work well with them and vice versa. These behaviours hold a real clue to turning non-working into working relationships. If we can just get adjust our behaviours to get them working for each other. But many managers don’t deal in behaviours, preferring instead the currency of labels, such as ‘unprofessional’, ‘hard working’ or ‘poor attitude’ for example. Once these labels have been applied, and become the way we see our colleagues, they almost pre-ordain the nature of our working relationships. It is hard to have a good working relationship with someone who we have already labeled as ‘unprofessional’.
So where do these labels come from? What evidence are they based on? Often managers struggle to answer these questions with any specifics and have to learn how to track back from a label to the specific behaviours that have ‘created’ it. Let’s take for example the label ‘bad attitude’. What kind of behaviours might lead that label to be created? Well, here are some common ones: arriving late for work, leaving early, missing meetings, keeping quiet in meetings, being over bearing in meetings, responding with negative comments about ideas and proposals, checking mobiles during meetings, not making eye contact, talking loudly on the phone, tapping, clicking, sneering, shrugging, frowning…and the list goes on…
These behaviours that drive the labels are managerial gold dust. If we can observe them, describe them and their impacts, and feed them back in a way that is fast, safe and actionable then we can start to encourage more of the behaviours that create value and less of the behaviours that destroy it.
It’s a time thing…
Building good working relationships takes time courage. Time for high quality communication. Talking and listening about goals, hopes, frustrations and fears. Time to build trust and respect. Time to explore what’s working and what’s not and to demonstrate a real commitment to building a relationship that works. I am a big advocate of regular 121s. Up to half an hour every week just to talk, listen, plan, provide feedback and support. As long as you have a sensible span of control, say up to 15 direct reports, these 121s if managed well will save you a lot of time. I will be teaching The Basics of Effective 121s in a workshop later in the year.
It’s a courage thing…
Above all to building working relationships takes courage. You have to be prepared to face up to the issue and be prepared to both work on your own behaviour and exert your influence over the behaviour of others.
Working on Relationships Top Tips
- Get to grips with at least one model of personality that you can use to think about the relationship dynamics that might be at play
- Choose to work on the non-working relationships – give them time and look for positives (be careful though, don’t let the squeaky wheels get all the grease)
- Focus on behaviours – what are you doing and what are they doing that leads to the problem? Use feedback – both giving and getting it – to influence behaviours.
- Give yourself time to build the relationship – it might not happen overnight