Working Relationships That Work

“It’s hard for us to improve our working relationships in the heat of battle,” he declared. “And yet, we need open, passionate debate about the issues among our leadership team in order to grow.” So I asked him, “What do you do to better construct your working relationships?” This competent and self-aware senior executive soon recognized that his proverbial lunches to “get to know the other person better” and his “hallway chats” about family or football were insufficient to developing robust working relationships with and among his leadership team.

I see this repeatedly. We try to improve our working relationships with colleagues we’re having “difficulties” with. But our attempts to get to know someone we work with on a “personal” level don’t really get to the heart of the matter. Improving familiarity and cordiality, although welcome, entirely misses the point of an effective working relationship. However “nice”, they tend to wane in the heat of battle. Or they have us avoid utilizing conflict altogether.

We’re not talking about profit margins or product quality assurance here. We can relate to profit margins and product quality in very concrete terms.

Historically, how we define a working relationship has not been as concrete or tangible as other fundamentals of business. In fact, it can be.

We’re talking about something you cannot delegate. Developing working relationships is not the responsibility of HR or the training department. This is the responsibility of every individual leader in their relationships with one another. A working relationship is designed and nurtured by the two people who are in it. Nurtured for the sake of ongoing success.

How we improve a working relationship is by having conversations with each other to design and construct our relationship. In this way, each one-on-one relationship will be distinct and unique to the two people involved. What is a conflict between you and me is not necessarily a conflict between you and anyone else. What works in our relationship may not work with anyone else.

None of this happens spontaneously. The good news: we have constructs and skills that we can apply to our relationships through conversation.

On the surface, there may not appear to be anything sexy about this.

But wouldn’t you like to have better working relationships and more control over how healthy and effective they are? No matter how much enthusiasm we can generate by a shared experience in a ropes course, there’s nothing more empowering or rewarding than co-creating an effective working relationship in a conversation.

We have to be committed to do the work to have our working relationships work. We need to learn the skill set and the language to proactively construct and nurture our working relationships. We have to be diligent and rigorous in these conversations. We have to be deliberate and intentional.

This is the heart of the matter.