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The Secret to Maximizing Your Work Relationships

The Secret to Maximizing Your Work Relationships

These days, many of us work on highly matrixed, cross-functional teams. Team members may be distributed across offices, states, or even the world. It’s not unusual for many team members to rarely, or never, meet face-to-face. Add to that heavy workloads and high-pressure deadlines and it can be difficult to build the types of trusted relationships required to grow your visibility and influence within your organization.

Women, in particular, have a tendency to struggle with relationship-building in these types of settings. For one thing, when times are busy, the temptation to chug away at our desks and keep producing runs high. Who has time for “socializing” when there is work to be done?

Many of us also worry that, because everyone is so busy, we’ll be wasting others’ time by engaging in relationship-building efforts. It’s one thing to chat briefly at the water cooler. It’s another thing to proactively create networking opportunities with colleagues in other locations and time zones.

[Related: Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Visibility in the Workplace]

To address these self-imposed relationship-building limitations, I recommend connecting in neutral moments. Often, our only interactions with key colleagues are during high-pressure situations where neither of us is well-positioned to make new friends. These encounters may be undermined by intense emotions and conflict, making it difficult to truly connect and understand each other.

If those are our only frames of reference for one another, we’re unlikely to build deeper levels of trust and respect. Why does this matter? There are three important reasons to deepen connections in neutral moments.

For one thing, it makes our work lives more pleasant. When we know and understand each other, we’re less likely to over-personalize conflict that arises in the heat of high-pressure moments. We’re also more motivated to work together instead of against each other, even if we have differing goals.

Another reason to connect in neutral moments is that it provides us with opportunities to better share our longer-term goals. In demanding situations with looming deadlines, we have no choice but to stay focused on the short-term. This deprives us of opportunities to better understand what guides each of us as professionals and humans. When we know what others care about on a broader scale, we can more effectively influence one another. And we can better support each other in the long run.

And, finally, when you deepen your connections to colleagues across the organization, you gain much greater access to information and opportunity. The better you know your co-workers, the more likely they are to share behind-the-scenes insights regarding upcoming changes and new career opportunities. When we aren’t active members of this influence loop, we’re forced to rely on slower, more formal channels for this type of information, which makes us less effective and less valuable to others.

So, how do we build relationships in neutral moments? It’s not as challenging as it might seem. Here are three steps.

[Related: Elevate Your Career by Communicating Your Impact]

1) Identify the colleagues you want to prioritize.

Relationship-building could be its own full-time job, so don’t try to boil the ocean. Start with a reasonable number of targets (3-5 is a good start). I recommend starting with people with whom you currently have tense or strained relationships.

This is a good opportunity to reset and work together more effectively in the future. I also recommend selecting individuals who have the potential to influence your career path. You want to ensure that these folks have a more well-rounded impression of you.

And, finally, choose people who genuinely interest you. Maybe they’re doing interesting work or have skills/traits you admire.

2) Schedule virtual coffee.

When you don’t work in an office with someone, the only opportunities you have to connect are typically formal meetings. This doesn’t provide adequate time for personal connections.

Invite each of your targets to a virtual coffee (ideally video-based, but phone is fine too) where the highest-priority agenda item is sharing with each other. You might get to know each other personally, or you might simply share more information about what you’re working on.

These can be great opportunities to explore intersections in your respective goals and discuss how to collaborate more effectively going forward.

3) Commit to ongoing discussions.

Once you’ve had your virtual coffee, don’t stop there. It’s not a one-and-done.

During the course of the conversation, discuss how you’ll maintain communication in the future. Depending on the nature of the relationship, suggest scheduling recurring meetings on a monthly, quarterly, or bi-annual basis. Then put them in the calendar so that you don’t lose momentum.

Work relationships are critical to your overall levels of confidence, visibility, and influence. Use neutral moments to deepen levels of trust, understanding, and respect.

[Related: Passionate or Pushy - How to Avoid Going Over the Line]


Kim Meninger is an executive coach who specializes in women’s leadership. She empowers women to build their confidence, visibility, and influence. 

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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