The Trouble with Building Relationships at Work

Building relationships is critical to success at any given time at work, especially in today’s workplace.

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We all know that “building relationships is critical to success” at any time, but this is especially true in today’s workplace. “People are our number one asset!” The problem is that such truisms lead a lot of would-be, go-to people in the wrong direction when trying to tap the power of relationships at work. First, there are those who play workplace politics.

Four Types of People Who Play Workplace Politics

  • The blamer. Blamers always can (and usually do) tell you (and lots of others) all of the things that other people do wrong (or not quite right) that lead to suboptimal results.
    Shane, a retail sales whiz at a makeup counter in a major department store, specializes in makeovers—and turning makeovers into sales. Not only does he make a point of keeping score of his own successes, but he is also ready to tell anybody who will listen exactly why any sale he misses is somebody else’s fault. It might be the buyers who sometimes fail to keep up inventory on his best-selling products or that salesperson who “scares away” his customers before he gets to them or the assistant managers who sometimes don’t let him give a customer the discount he “needs” to give. The blamer makes darn sure that his boss (and everyone else) knows whom to blame, but, of course, it’s never Shane.

The irony is that Shane’s complaints potentially reveal very important information about problems in his department. But pointing fingers at others is no way to drive continuous improvement.

  • The lobbyist. Lobbyists are always ready to tell anybody who will listen about what they want (or need): the next big project, a new location, a different schedule, training, or of course, the next raise or promotion. And they lobby not just for themselves but also for others. Maggie, a manufacturing manager, is always there to tell her boss why she and her team should get credit for anything and everything, and why they need more resources—people, money, time—if they are going to keep up with the production schedule. Maggie also spends a lot of time trying to impress big shots, not just her boss, but also her boss’s boss, and her boss’s boss’s boss. Of course, Maggie manages to do her share of blaming others in one breath, even as she lobbies for something she wants in the next breath—especially if she’s trying to deflect attention from an error made by her team.

Like the blamer, the lobbyist may actually have some good reasons for bringing certain information to the table. But if you are always lobbying—“more for me, more for us”—you begin to lack credibility, and the underlying problems may well remain unresolved.

Both the blamer and the lobbyist are classic types who try to use politics to gain relationship power on the job. The blamer does that by tearing down other people, usually behind their backs. The lobbyist does that by advocating for her (and others’) wants and needs, often by trading favors or making threats, however, veiled those threats might be. Or sometimes you’ll see lobbyists trying to build relationships by ingratiating themselves—through flattery or favors—with people who have authority and influence.

Maybe even more common than playing politics, many would-be, go-to people seek to build relationship power at work by relying on personal rapport:

  • Personality. This person at work tries to build relatively shallow personal rapport. I remember Barney, a shipping and receiving manager, who knew everybody in the entire headquarters. If you shipped or received anything, Barney knew your name. Every morning, he’d make a big lap—into the cafeteria, down the hallways, walking by everybody’s cubicle—saying hello by name. Occasionally, Barney would stop and shoot the breeze about this or that TV show, his doctor’s visit, his child’s activities. Barney was also always available to have coffee or step outside for another cigarette. He was the kind of guy who participated in everybody else’s break. The problem was, he never seemed to have time to improve his work—such as making a better plan for keeping the supply chain moving through his shipping bays. Whenever something went wrong in the process, though, suddenly Barney got very serious, and those conversations didn’t go well. Despite all that personal rapport Barney was always building, it did nothing to make the work go better. And when the work got problematic, all that rapport went right out the window.
  • Best Friend. This person really wants to go deep with personal rapport building. Now, don’t get me wrong. I realize that sometimes you actually are best friends with a coworker, or you work with a spouse, sibling, or cousin. That has its own set of complications to manage. What I’m talking about here is the person who tries to become best friends at work (lunch or maybe drinks after work) or else real best friends (weekend get-togethers with each other’s families). I remember Frida, who was definitely the best friend type, stopping by everybody’s desk to show them pictures of her kids, but she didn’t have kids. They were actually pictures of another colleague’s kids, which she had conveniently on her person. Of course, if you have deep friendships at work, so be it. But there are a number of issues here: those personal affinities don’t help you plan the work so it goes better. And when the work goes badly, sometimes it is very hard for a best friend like Frida to hold people accountable or take corrective action. And people like Frida sometimes end up forming workplace cliques, based on personal affinities, which exclude other coworkers.

Both Mr. Personality and Ms. Best Friend work very hard at relationship building. Sometimes it seems that’s too much of what they do. The problem is that Mr. Personality’s relationships are based on paper-thin connections—all style, no substance. And Ms. Best Friend is so busy going deep that she may build her workplace loyalties for plenty of non-work-related reasons and miss out on other potentially valuable working relationships in the process. And all that socializing can be a big distraction.

The Problem

The problem is that, like the blamer, the lobbyist, Mr. Personality, and Ms. Best Friend, too many would-be go-to people emphasize the wrong aspects of relationship building. They conflate relationship power with politics, popularity, or even friendship. That’s always a big mistake. Those aspects of relationships have their place, but they don’t do enough to get the work done better and faster.

Despite all the time and energy dedicated to relationships, there is simply not enough structured communication to ensure alignment, due diligence, planning, and execution. That means the same things go wrong with the work like last time, and once again, there’s no real systematic follow-up after the fact to fine-tune the process of working together.

Whenever the work goes wrong, regardless of the personal rapport and politics, the pressure on those relationships increases exponentially. That’s when people start complaining about each other, blaming, and finger-pointing, which undermines the relationships rather than making them stronger. Whatever personal rapport and politics you have built up go right out the window. Yes, good rapport with one’s colleagues is a must, and political dynamics are necessary. Also, there is critical data to be found in blaming, complaining, and finger-pointing.

Foster authentic rapport with people at work by talking about what you actually have in common and need to stay focused on: the work you do together. That rapport will help make the work go better, and it won’t disappear when the work goes wrong.