A Practical Way to Build Relationships (Even When You’re Short on Time)

The dirty little secret of business is that it’s all done on relationships. In our first article in this series, the bottom-line was that you can’t afford to not take the time to invest in this critical aspect of your career.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? It takes time. And who has enough slack in their work week to add yet something more?

“Relationship-building? Great idea. I just don’t have the time.”

But Is It A Time Issue?

This is a bit personal but let me ask you a question. Prior walking into work, did you brush your teeth? Take a bath or shower?

I realize that norms vary by culture, but here’s the point of my prying question. We take care of at least basic personal hygiene before work because there’s typically a return on that investment of time in the morning! Most of us don’t roll out of bed and say, “Sorry! I just don’t have time to get cleaned up today!” (Unless, perhaps, when we’re working from home without any meetings with webcams!)

When I work with executive coaching clients and audiences around the world, nearly everyone agrees about the importance of relationship-building, as an idea. But, in practice, it’s often not perceived as sufficiently valuable to justify the investment of time.

Over the years I’ve had the distinct privilege of interviewing some of the top leadership thought leaders of our time, and one highlight is Dr. Ed Schein. Ed, who is now in his nineties, is the guy who coined the term corporate culture. It was like talking to Yoda.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Dr. Schein is the dynamics of learning and anxiety. “Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past.”* Forget about trying to talk people out of learning anxiety. It’s the basis for resistance to change.

Ah, but there’s also survival anxiety: “the horrible realization that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change.”* His thesis is that learning only happens when survival anxietyis greater than learning anxiety.

Take a moment and let that idea soak in. You’re most likely to go through the inconvenience of learning something new when you think your survival depends on it.

Your Survival Depends on Relationship-Building

Stop thinking about relationship-building as a nice idea. Think of it as one of the top skills you need for career survival.

You are one acquisition or economic crisis or management change or automation disruption away from looking for a job. That next career opportunity will likely come because of a relationship.

But it’s not just about job hunting.

Mentors can radically boost your ability to navigate an increasingly complex business world. Broader relationships expose you to innovative ideas, provide early warnings about upcoming changes, and ease your ability to influence outcomes.

An Idea and An Exercise

Since you’re tight on time, here’s an idea: leverage something you’re already doing. Meetings are not just for information sharing and decision-making. Think of them as relationship-building opportunities. If you arrive before the meeting starts, seek out someone you don’t know as well and sit by them. Ask questions to learn more about them. I like to ask people, “What’s something good from the last week?” It gets them talking, primes the discussion to be positive, and provides an opportunity to celebrate with the person–all of which are powerful ingredients of relationship-building.

Even if you sit by someone you know well, ask some questions. Follow-up with them about something they may have mentioned before (e.g., “You mentioned your family was going to get some time away. How was your trip?”). Avoid bringing the focus back to yourself (Celeste Headlee calls this conversational narcissism).

Beyond that, carve out 15 minutes for a network audit, an exercise described in Herminia Ibarra’s book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. Here’s how it works:

Identify up to 10 people with whom you have discussed important work matters over the last few months. Perhaps you went for advice. Or used them as a sounding board. You don’t have to identify 10, and don’t try to think of who should be on the list. Only list people to whom you have recently turned for help.

Now, look that list over. What does it say to you about your network? What are the strengths of your network, as it exists today? What are the weaknesses?

One observation I took from my first network audit exercise: I don’t go for advice nearly enough. If I was truthful about how I actually went about work, the list of advisors I sought over the last few months was strikingly short.

I also realized that the network was not nearly as diverse as it should be. Here I mean not only gender or racial diversity. I also mean cognitive diversity. Departmental diversity. Job level diversity. Experience diversity.

A network audit is an easy exercise to skip. Don’t. Try it and see what it tells you.

Your survival may just depend on what you learn.

What stands out to you from this article? Please leave a comment to join the discussion. If you found this helpful, share this article with your colleagues. Keep an eye out for our next article as we continue this series on relationship-building.

Andy Kaufman works with clients around the world to help them lead teams and deliver projects. He is the host of the acclaimed People and Projects Podcast which provides interviews and insights to help people lead and deliver. Learn more athttp://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com or listen on any podcast app. If you have an upcoming large group meeting, learn more about having Andy speak at http://i-leadonline.com/keynotes.

* The quotes are from Diane Couto’s Harvard Business Review article “The Anxiety of Learning” (available online at https://hbr.org/2002/03/the-anxiety-of-learning). You can hear Dr. Schein talk about culture in episode 25 of the People and Projects Podcast (http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/25).

Our discussion with Herminia Ibarra about Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader is in episode 130 (http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/130).

Our discussion with Celeste Headlee about conversational narcissism is in episode 195 (http://PeopleAndProjectsPodcast.com/195).

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