“Being social at work is a waste of time.” When I heard these words from a leader regarding their approach to working with people in the workplace, I instantly recognized it to be a commonly held view, notwithstanding that it’s rarely said with the same degree of bald clarity.
It’s the belief of those who are driven to deliver yet haven’t yet updated their approach from when they were a single contributor. That’s a problem for them and their organizations. Without strong, trusting relationships, success is only temporary and limited to when things are going well. Watch out for when situations become problematic.
I attended the opening of a major exhibition of Brian Jungen’s art, the ingenious visual artist known for eviscerating Nike sneakers to create colourful indigenous masks. When the museum’s CEO took the microphone, he shared that the exhibit was only possible because of the lengthy relationship between the curator and the artist. Museums trade on relationships just as much as they do knowledge and taste. The artist and museum’s interests may be mutually beneficial, but it might surprise you to learn that without longstanding trusting relationships, many exhibits wouldn’t have happened.
Just as in the art world, relationships in any workplace are the grease that makes the wheels turn. It’s the social linkages — not just hard work and a dogged determination — that make it all possible, even in situations of mutual benefit.
So why do so many get stuck making it all about “getting it done” with their heads down and their proverbial sleeves rolled up?
To answer that, you’d need to look at who gets promoted inside of workplaces. I’ve worked with leaders whose careers rose swiftly, principally because of their ability to execute brilliantly. It’s no small feat to build a reputation for getting things reliably done and on time. The trap for emerging leaders is that it’s easy to have a hard focus on delivering and forget the importance of relationship building because results are what many businesses value.
A client of mine in the biotech industry earned a reputation as a formidable producer. Nevertheless, she felt frustrated that the cross-functional teams weren’t working as well together as they could. With the focus on results and the expectation to collaborate too, the missing puzzle piece was the lack of strong interpersonal connections.
What’s more, speed in some cultures is the name of the game, and what gets lost is the need for deliberate trust-building across the silos. When mistakes happen, people get blamed. Rooting out who is at fault is the first priority rather than collaborating for problem-solving. This scientist came to see that she and her peers can have a positive impact on the team climate with greater availability and openness that would reduce persistent misunderstandings. The solution didn’t rely on process clarity alone, but on trust-building too.
Let me tell you a story. A fundraising campaign pitch for a youth leadership summer camp I attended as a young girl found its way to my inbox. I knew I wanted to contribute funds and revive an old community to enroll others to do the same. So I sent an email to three people from the greater community. I’m not a professional fundraiser, so I leaned on what I knew about people, relationships and getting results. Two said yes to the request and showed enthusiasm, a sign of commitment. I didn’t receive a reply from the third person, and he didn’t donate. That’s because trust and rapport had long disappeared with time. Whereas my email requests showed competence with the ask, that was table stakes. Rapport and a relationship were the difference between results and none. Social persuasion depends on a foundation of both to gain commitment that produces results.
Language gives us access to ways of thinking that may be hidden from us. With that in mind, here’s a helpful vocabulary and a list of useful approaches to get work done more effectively. Each is vital to good leadership.
- Take on social fluency. Engage and get proficient in interpersonal relationships that are mutually satisfying and that include give-and-take, trust, and the expression of compassion.
- Develop an affiliative leadership style. This is the approach to leadership where people come first. You do this by taking an active interest in the whole person, developing connections between you and between others, and doing what you can to create a harmonious climate.
- Lean into vulnerability. Admitting when you don’t know (but will find out) is a means of building trust. When I’ve coached leaders who have fudged the answers more than they should, they’ve learned from their multi-rater reports that in fact, others often knew they were pretending to “know” and it eroded their credibility. It’s amazing how winning it can be to show what you don’t know.
- Bring joy to it. Most of us have serious jobs, and people rely on us to do well. But being serious at work as a default without play and joy leads to disengagement on the team and a workforce that puts time in without feeling satisfied.
- Become more likeable. Yup, this can be learned. The way to grow your likeability is to be friendly, connect over shared interests, be genuine, ask questions of others and show empathy.
Leaders who rely on their expertise alone and make do with transactional relationships lose out on being included in the trust network. By seeking out social linkages, there is an opportunity to become a collaborative leader. These leaders know how to create a climate where people talk openly about mistakes and letting go of silos. Those who show strong managerial ability and foster quality connections create cohesion where there isn’t any and make genuine collaboration possible.
The key to creating a collaborative leadership culture is the shared belief in the mission, the expression of mutual support, and strong connectivity, a requisite for the practice of holding honest conversations. Executing alone doesn’t get you there, but the expressions of genuine relationship-building can.
Image creds go to Patrick Fore. This article was first published at Forbes.com here.