Building Better Working Relationships

Last time we suggested taking a look at which of your working relationships could use some attention. If you’ve been truly honest in your self-examination, you probably have discovered one or more key relationships could stand some improvement. Perhaps you’ve neglected one of your high-performers to focus more attention on a marginal performer. Or you may tend to avoid dealing with a co-worker who kind of rubs you the wrong way or who you frankly don’t like much.

Whatever the situation, unless you do something to change the equation, the relationship is unlikely to improve. It might continue to deteriorate if you do nothing, but it’s unlikely to improve on its own. So, what could you do?

You might begin by asking yourself several questions:

  • Why is this relationship important to me?
  • Why do I feel the relationship could be better than it is right now?
  • What would be the ideal relationship with this person?
  • What would I be willing to do in order to improve it?

Once you’ve examined the current state of the relationship, it’s time to decide what you want to do, and when you intend to do it. Realize that there may be no single “best” thing to do or say; the key here is being willing to try different things and keep at it as long as it takes to see the relationship improve.

While there certainly are plenty of practical suggestions (see Skill 3) in The 8 Essential Skills for Supervisors & Managers, here are a few that might be a good place to start:

  • Be patient! – most problem relationships did not get that way overnight; they won’t improve overnight either.
  • Be interested in the other person’s ideas, suggestions; ask for their opinion.
  • Be flexible – be willing to try different approaches until you sense things are moving in the right direction
  • Be clear about expectations – yours and theirs, but do so in a non-confrontational way
  • Re-recruit your high performers from time to time; they will appreciate the attention and value your commitment to building the team
  • Realize that changing the relationship is up to you!

As Stephen Covey so eloquently said, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If we think more about understanding the other person, seeking their perspective, asking for their ideas, and seriously listen to what they have to say, that cannot help but move the relationship in the right direction.

Don’t you think so?

Paul

What Are Your Key Relationships?

Mary Jo Asmus, my long-time colleague, coach, and friend frequently reminds us, “it’s all about the relationships.” As we work with management teams and individuals one question that deserves asking is, “which relationships are most important to you?” It’s a simple question, but one that really does benefit from thoughtful consideration. After all, not every relationship in your work and your life is equally important to you and to your success. And yet, one of the major reasons the failure rate for newly promoted or hired managers is so high (40% in the first 18 months!) is failing to build cooperative working relationships with employees or peers.

Your Manager – In most cases the relationship with your manager . . . your boss . . . is pretty high up on the importance scale. During several decades of working in organizations I reported to a variety of different bosses. Some were excellent managers; some were mediocre managers, but all of them gave me a fair amount of freedom to do my job as I thought best. That freedom was great, but it also meant I seldom had much in the way of detailed expectations about what they wanted.

If your particular boss is a big-picture person – intuitive, future-oriented, a bit bored by all the details, you’re unlikely to get a lot of specific details . . . well, about much of anything, to be truthful. That means getting the details figured out is up to you. If your boss has a constant laser-like focus on the details of your job, good luck – you are working for a micro-manager. Regardless of their style, it just makes sense to pay attention to building and maintaining a healthy relationship with the one you report to.

Your Peers – You also have key peers . . . other supervisors or managers who are generally on a similar level in the organization. Maybe they are “upstream” or “downstream” from your unit or team. In other words, their team’s results or output has an important affect on how you and your team produce your results. Or, the peer’s team may be the primary recipient of your team’s output. In either case the relationship between you and the peer (and realistically between your team and theirs) is really a key relationship.

Your Employees – Almost certainly your direct reports . . . your employees . . . are important relationships for you. After all, the results they produce have a huge impact on how you are perceived as a supervisor. Great results and you are viewed as a good manager. Crappy results and you are viewed differently. Perhaps a long-time employee is about to retire and you need to do some succession planning so you don’t lose their experience and wisdom when they walk out the door. Maybe a new member of the team seems to be struggling to find their place in the group. Whatever the current situation, building successful relationships with your employees has a direct bearing on your success as a supervisor or manager.

Assessing Your Relationships

It makes sense to give some thought to the relationships in your professional life. Which are the “key” relationships? Who are the people whose good opinion you value the most? Who has the ability to help you or hinder you professionally? Once you are clear about which relationships are most important, then you have to ask yourself to honestly (and I mean being really honest) about the current state of those relationships. Which relationships could use some improvement? Is there a key relationship that needs work if you are going to be successful in your current job?

How would you rate each of your working relationships on a scale of 1 – 5? A 1 or 2 would indicate lots of room for improvement, while a 5 would be a successful relationship . . .  good communications, high levels of trust, the ability to count on the other person’s support, the willingness to resolve questions and issues cooperatively . . . all those factors that go into building successful relationships.

Give the questions some thought. Next time we’ll have a few suggestions that may just help improve a key relationship or two.

Paul

 

Fear in the Workplace

Long before I founded Midwest Consulting Group in 1990 I worked in a variety of organizations in management roles. One thing I noticed was the presence of people who seemed to be in fear much of the time. I came to understand that Fear is a reality in many working environments. You may define workplace fear differently, but what I sensed and saw were some of the following fears:

  • Fear my boss will fire me; I could be without a job, lose my house, etc.
  • Fear people will realize I don’t really know what I’m doing.
  • Fear others will think my ideas are silly or unworkable.
  • Fear I’ll be viewed as not a “team player” if I disagree with plans or priorities.
  • Fear I’ll make a bad decision, support an unsuccessful initiative, or chose the “wrong side” in disputes within the team.
  • Fear of . . . some unknown something that might happen someday.

Recently I worked with a nonprofit arts organization where most of the above fears seemed to be operating. Even the director exhibited some level of fear. As you can imagine, the atmosphere and energy around the group was decidedly negative; people were constantly watching their back.

In “The 8 Essential Skills for Supervisors & Managers” Freedom from Fear is described as the “foundation” of Skill 3 – Building Successful Relationships. When the relationship is one based on Fear, the higher-level aspects – honesty, trust, personal interaction, acceptance, good communication, development and growth, mutual benefit – simply cannot happen.

Over the next several posts we’ll examine the components of successful relationships. As our colleague and coach Mary Jo Asmus says, “It’s all about the relationships.”

Paul

Managing Your “Boss”

I need to make a confession. Frankly, I’m biased against the term “boss.” It’s an old label from the days when the person in charge of a crew or group of workers really did “boss” them around. “Do this! Do that! Do it this way!” Although there are settings or situations when having someone clearly in command makes good sense – first responders in emergencies and military combat come to mind – the term is really outmoded today. Still, it is short, easy to say, and everyone knows what you mean when you refer to “my boss” as the person you report to within your organization.

The relationship with your own boss is one of the most important work relationships you have. When you and your boss are generally on the same page, have good rapport, and communicate reasonably well, you’re much more likely to enjoy your job. On the other hand, if your relationship with your boss is strained, you don’t have good communication, and your ideas about how to get things done are substantially different, your daily interactions can quickly become conflict-ridden and, well, a grind.

What kinds of expectations do you think your boss has of you? What are the things you generally do to keep your boss in the loop? Some expectations a manager might have of you as their direct report are pretty universal, such as “Know your responsibilities and carry them out effectively without a lot of detailed instructions.”

What other specific expectations do you think your manager has? If you aren’t sure, maybe it’s time to ask – having a conversation about what you think they expect and what they actually do expect might be a highly useful discussion. After all, if you aren’t clear about what is expected, it’s going to be difficult to be effective as a supervisor or manager.

We live in a world that’s dynamic, fluid, and fast-paced. Priorities change and external events present new challenges. Try sitting down with your boss. Say to them, “Here are the things I’m currently working on. Here’s my perspective on what you expect of me in my current role. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page about priorities and whether you think I’m focusing on the right things.”

Help your boss manage you. It might just be the most important thing you do this year.

What do you think?

Paul

Promoted In Place

The long-time supervisor of your team will be retiring a couple of months from now, and you’ve been selected as their successor. Congratulations! You are about to move into your first supervision job. It’s exciting and scary at the same time, especially since you will be supervising a group of people who have been your peers for the past several years. You’re about to be promoted in place. When you move from being “one of the gang” to a supervisory role, you can expect to experience some (or maybe many) challenges. These could include:

  • How quickly you adjust to what good performance meant for you as a team member and what it means now as a supervisor
  • How well team members understand your new role, and their willingness to accept and support your new duties
  • How well you understand and adapt to the workload and pace associated with the responsibilities of your new job
  • How well you understand and deal with the uncertainty, ambiguity, and need for multitasking associated with your new role
  • How quickly you learn important administrative tasks that you aren’t prepared for or experienced in
  • How well you handle the wide variety of human resources, interpersonal communication, and people-focused issues that are part of your new job

If this sounds daunting, it should. The skills and behaviors that made you an effective member of the team – one of “us” – are not necessarily the same skills and behaviors required to be an effective supervisor. And regardless of how close and how strong your relationships are with your teammates, those relationships will change once you become their supervisor. Still, with good communications, particularly good listening and a commitment to lead the team rather than “boss” the team, you can be successful when you are promoted in place. What’s been your experience?

Paul

Choices And Expectations

Whenever we see performance problems the culprit frequently involves expectations. Someone’s expectations about what was to happen did not get met. Those might involve results, behaviors, communications, relationships, or a combination of unmet expectations.

Expectations are often unstated or implied, the person “expecting” certain behaviors or results rarely has been explicit about the specifics of the expectation. Far too often the offending party has no idea what they have done wrong, and when an expectation goes unmet for days, weeks, or even months, the relationship sours, perhaps to the point of somebody losing their job.

Expectations come from a variety of sources, for example:

  • Employees have expectations about how their manager communicates with them.
  • Managers have expectations about when an employee needs to ask for input or permission and when the employee can act on their own.
  • Customers have expectations about the relationship with your organization, including how and when you will communicate with them.
  • Peers and co-workers have expectations about the relationship and communications between you and them, as well as between your unit and their unit.

Those are simply a few examples of where there are expectations, but you get the general idea. And in many instances the expectations are strongly held but completely unstated. Think about what kinds of expectations might be operating in your particular situation. What expectations do you have about how your subordinates are to behave and which of those expectations are merely implicit? How often has an expectation not been met but you’ve said nothing to the employee? Look at some of the examples below:

Managers Expectations – samples:

  • Be flexible in responding to shifts in priorities or direction
  • Suggest improvements to will help the organization be more successful
  • Keep them in the loop about what is happening in your unit
  • Be a self-starter, honest, trustworthy, and reliable

Employees Expectations – samples:

  • Manage under-performers so they either succeed or leave
  • Listen to their ideas, concerns, problems, and proposed solutions
  • Keep them informed about things that have a bearing on their work
  • Provide clear information about what you expect them to do

Peers Expectations – samples:

  • Pull your share of the load; make sure your team does too
  • Train and develop your staff
  • Be an active member of the team; provide ideas, suggestions, feedback
  • Share information that helps others get the job done successfully

These are just a few examples of typical expectations; you can easily come up with others. And there may be expectations unique to your own organization. Yet time and time again these kinds of expectations are not communicated to the key people you work with every day. What would happen if you sat down with your boss, your employees, your peers and had a real conversation about expectations? Do you think it might help people work more cooperatively, more positively, more successfully?

I think so. What do you think?

Paul

What Did You Learn?

What did you learn from each of your previous bosses? Maybe you worked for one of those rare “natural” supervisors or managers. I’ve met a few, but they are few and far between. Most of us who have worked inside organizations have worked for a series of bosses. And we probably had no difficulty finding things about their style that bugged us, frustrated us, even made us angry from time to time.

But at the same time, looking at it from the rear view mirror, I bet you also learned some valuable lessons from each of them. I know I did. Some of those lessons were positives – things to emulate, copy, and modify to fit me. And some were negatives – things to not do when faced with a similar situation.

One of my first bosses was The Chief. He was a Master Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy and was the lead admin for the Supply Officer on my ship. He’d been in the Navy about 25 years and had risen steadily to become one of the senior people in his logistics specialty. Since our ship had one of the first on-board computers in the Navy (a Univac 1500 that took up a lot of room and was one of the few air-conditioned spaces on the ship), we were dealing with state-of-the art in some ways, and very old technology in others. Remember 10-part carbon paperwork?

From The Chief I learned precision and the importance of doing the job to the best of my ability. He also served as a role model of how to handle a difficult boss who had spent his entire career on shore duty. When we were at sea, the Supply Officer spent the whole time holed up in his cabin, alternately hollering at somebody over the ship’s phone and bouts of throwing up .

Some years later I worked for a boss I’ll call Sam. I was running an organization-wide system with multiple locations and nearly round-the-clock operations. From Sam I learned the value of building effective cross-departmental relationships and the wisdom of seeking multiple opinions and perspectives before making major decisions. My mid-20’s shoot-from-the-hip, get-it-done-now style sometimes backfired on me, particularly when I failed to identify key stakeholders and give them a “heads-up” regarding plans. Sam showed us all how to lead a diverse (and often highly competative) group of department heads in a positive direction by “communicating lavishly,” to use a favorite Max DePree quote. Sam knew where we were heading, kept us all in the loop, and ran interference with other senior leaders when necessary. Quiet leadership, practiced daily.

Those are just two of the people I learned from. What did you learn?

Think about what you’ve learned from some of the people you’ve worked for over the years. If you’d like to share a thought or two, that would be great. If not, at least think about it.

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