Building Effective Work Relationships
The goal is not to make everybody best friends. And it is possible to get work done when there are interpersonal difficulties. But relationship problems can be a serious barrier to effective task success, and it is usually worth the effort to turn those troublesome relationships into at least acceptable work relationships. You can develop the approach need to make that happen.
It’s not difficult to build relationships with those you know well and with whom you share similar goals, values, and tastes. Their assumptions and ways of viewing the world are familiar. Their behavior, even when disagreeable, is predictable, and they can be influenced by known methods. But organisations are filled with people who are “strangers,” who view the world differently because they work for differing functions and managers; are a different sex, age, race, ethnicity, country of origin; or have different training and experiences—all resulting from the requirement to bring diverse expertise to bear on complex organisational problems.
A wider range of people, backgrounds, and views is needed than in Kipling’s time. Then, members of the British Administrative Services were trained to “think like the Queen” so that they would know what to do when messages and instructions took too long to arrive in the colonies. And, since they were recruited from the same narrow social class and shared the same blinders, they already had a running start toward cohesiveness and ease of dealing with one another. Current conditions require more effort to build effective work relationships with the range of people whose cooperation is needed.
In any circumstances, good, open, and trusting relationships have several benefits:
- Communication is more complete, so you are more likely to know the needs of the other person.
- The other person is more likely to take your word and to be open to being influenced.
- You can pay back later in a wider range of currencies and less exactly.
- Personal currencies where there is connection become more important, which broadens the kinds of currencies you can pay in.
Although transactions occasionally can be so clearly beneficial to both parties that the relationship between them is irrelevant, most of the time there are many ways in which a poor relationship affects work. For example, a poor relationship:
- Decreases the other person’s desire to be influenced.
- Increases burden of proof on:
- The other person’s performance.
- Delivery of promises.
- The value of what is offered to you for exchange.
- Expected timing of repayment.
- Decreases tolerance for the ambiguity inherent in valuing different goods and services for exchange.
- Reduces willingness to engage at all and raises spitefulness: “I’d rather go down in flames than help that rat!”
These are big handicaps when trying to achieve influence. If all relationships started with these disadvantages, organisational life would come to a standstill. Luckily, only the most unfortunate have no work relationships that are solid and trusting. Most organisational members know one or more people with whom they can be open and direct and realise the benefits of that kind of relationship. Problems arise with all those colleagues who are not so trusted or trusting. It’s bad enough when you deal with strangers who are unknown; complications multiply when you seek to influence someone who has heard you have a negative reputation or with whom you have personally had a bad experience.
What can you do when you are not starting with a good relationship or do not have a great deal in common?
Adapt to the Preferred Work Style of the Other Person or Group
One of the most accessible areas for building work relationships is work style. All people have a certain work style a way of solving problems, dealing with others, and getting their jobs done. Some people prefer careful analysis before action; others like to blast through and patch up any holes later. Some managers want subordinates to come to them only with solutions, while others want employees to seek help when the problem is still developing. In building work relationships, some people like to get to know a colleague first before dealing with the task, while others feel they cannot consider closeness until there has been some successful work interaction.
Preferred styles come from training and experiences, from the demands of jobs, and from individual personality. Cultures create work styles, too. In many Asian and Latin countries, no work can be undertaken until colleagues have consumed many cups of tea or coffee and exchanged pleasantries. In parts of the United States, however, people get impatient if the tasks aren’t tackled early and socialising saved for later.
Objectively, there isn’t one “right way” to interact, declared in heaven and engraved in stone. Subjectively, however, people often do feel there is one right way—theirs! They often are not aware of their styles; it feels so natural, it must be inherently correct. But, in dealing with others, it is important to be aware of your style and that of the person you want to influence.
Have you ever seen a manager who wants precise written requests but is driven crazy by a subordinate who mentions whatever is on his mind when he sees the boss in the hall? One manager we have observed repeatedly asked for concise formal proposals but usually got the same off-the-cuff requests from one stubbornly casual subordinate. The subordinate thought it was all unnecessary bureaucracy.
Not being fully aware of your style can keep you from considering other possible approaches and unnecessarily limit your ability to connect.
You can use the list of common work style differences and to identify your own preferred style, and contrast that with the preferences of the person you want to influence. Do the differences in style account for some of the difficulties the two of you have working together? If so, then you have a choice. One option is to adopt the style the other per- son prefers. Alternatively, if the other person is willing, you could initiate a discussion about your differing styles and see if there is a way to proceed that would satisfy both of you.
Although differing work styles are often enough to cause serious problems, sometimes conflict results from genuine differences of substance. Very smart and strong people can have opposing views about, for example, fundamental strategic direction. Because they feel so strongly, they begin to think the problem is the bullheadedness of the other person, rather than legitimate business disagreements, so will be unable to reach agreement. We do not want to minimise these honest disagreements as a source of influence disputes. They shouldn’t, however, be compounded by communication problems caused by unrecognised differences in work style. Resolving genuine task disagreements are important enough without adding the extra burden of conflicting work styles.