It’s all about trust
Take a moment to think about the people you have the best working relationships with. Not everyone on that list will be a friend. It’s possible that you have very little in common with some people and it’s even possible that, if it wasn’t for work, your paths would never have crossed. If you work well together, friends or not, it’s likely that you have a high level of trust in them and that the feeling is mutual.
The people you trust may not be the people you instantly warmed to when you first met them, and it’s likely that there will be a few people you really like socially but avoid relying upon when work needs to get done.
It can be easy to assume a level of trust because of the good ‘chemistry’ you have with someone but it’s important to remember that trust is not a given. Ultimately, if you let each other down in any way, this trust - at least at work - will be eroded and could cause problems.
Trust tends to grow organically but it can be built consciously and quickly if you know what to focus on. Successful working relationships that stand the test of time require you to pay attention to the components within your relationship that create trust, and that’s where the trust equation comes in.
The trust equation
Former Harvard Business School professor, David Maister, devised an equation that defines the components that build and grow trust in a working relationship:
This equation can apply equally to colleagues, clients, stakeholders and your boss. And if you think about some of your personal relationships, it probably applies there too.
This sounds all well and good in theory, but what does it actually mean in practice? And how can we go about better understanding the components that make up the trust equation and avoiding the pitfalls that can seriously derail your relationships? Well, read on…
Do you know what you’re talking about? You don’t need to have a PhD in whatever you are working on but your knowledge, experience and / or interest needs to be evident.
Building credibility: Find opportunities to share your knowledge in ways that are helpful to others (and never patronising). Proactively seek opportunities to be involved in work that will develop your skills and knowledge and build your experience..
Common pitfall: Assuming that you have to know everything. Imagine that you are working with someone for the first time and they ask you a question that you think you should know the answer to. Do you a) pretend to know what you’re talking about and answer as best you can or b) own up to not knowing? Too often we choose answer a. But you can only be credible if you are authentic. Though not knowing something important might not build your credibility, pretending you know something will certainly erode it, so it’s generally better to opt for answer b.
Do you do what you say you’re going to do? It doesn’t matter how big your workload is, if you consistently stick to deadlines, deliver what you promise, keep meetings in the diary and generally create a sense of stability, your relationship will flourish.
Building reliability: Keep it consistent. Only agree to what you can manage and avoid over-promising. People will trust you more if you stick to sensible deadlines rather than wowing them a couple of times with more work than agreed, ahead of time. Unless you can keep that pace of work up all the time…
Common pitfall: Accidentally taking advantage of a friendly working relationship. When you already get on well with someone it can be all too easy to move that meeting, move that deadline and generally de-prioritise what is important to the other person, because you are not trying to impress them. Treat all your relationships as though they are brand new. You don’t need to impress someone you already have a good relationship with but letting them drop down your priority list will cause long lasting damage.
Are you an open or closed book? You don’t need to share absolutely everything about yourself to have a trusting working relationship, but it helps to be knowable. Sharing your opinions, thoughts and even feelings - in the appropriate context - will help people to feel connected to you. People need to know what motivates you so that they too can let their guard down and your relationship will advance only when this level of intimacy is achieved. No inappropriate physical contact required!
Building intimacy: Explain yourself. An easy way to start building intimacy is to share what drives your thoughts, feelings and actions. When sharing an opinion, you could explain why you have formed it and where it might be coming from. It doesn’t have to be deeply personal but enough to create a sense of openness and honesty.
Common pitfall: TMI (too much information). When we share too much irrelevant or out of context information about ourselves with the people we work with, we can erode the respect they have for us. Friendships at work are important but honouring the distinction between friendships and professional relationships is crucial to create better, more trusting working relationships.
People always know if you are genuinely interested in them and their needs, or if you are working to your own agenda. But it can be harder to recognise this in ourselves, especially if we are trying to build a relationship with someone because we want something from them - business, a sale, a contact…
Your orientation can be hard to manage. The trick is to be honest and to try to separate what you ‘want’ from the relationship, from the relationship itself. If you are trying to build a relationship with a potential customer, be upfront about what you want from them. If you do this in a warm, open way (intimacy) and they know who you are and why you are talking to them (credibility) then you don’t need to shy away from the main purpose of the conversation. The rest of the relationship can build on this honesty.
Building an awareness of self-orientation: Ask questions. The best way to both show you are focussed on the other person and to get focussed on them is to find out more about them, how they are feeling or what their opinion is.
Common pitfall: Falling into subservience. If you become too focused on the needs of the other person then you run the risk of losing your status in the relationship. Adjusting your self-orientation isn’t about disregarding your own thoughts and opinions, it’s about allowing space for the other person to share theirs. In the best relationships, both parties find an equal footing and are interested in each other’s views.
Who is important?
It can be easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on building new relationships or those that are immediately beneficial in your work and career. Though new relationships require more attention initially, be careful not to lose sight of the relationships you already have. Maintaining relationships, even with people who you know extremely well, should always remain a priority.
Take some time to think about all the relationships you have at work and reflect on the components that are strongest in each relationship. You may have a very close colleague whom you hardly spend any time with. Perhaps you book in catch ups but then move them at the last minute to make way for other meetings. It’s likely that doing this won’t have eroded your relationship completely but it might be having a negative impact on it. What could you do to be more reliable?
Or, perhaps you have a long standing relationship with a stakeholder or client but you’ve never really felt that you’ve connected. Take some time to think about your level of ‘intimacy’ with them. What do they know about you? What have you asked them about themselves? What could you do to get to know them better?
Remember, it’s never too late to make a relationship stronger. Make some time to build the best working relationships you can; focusing on building in more trust.
Communication is key
All good relationships are built on communication. You cannot build or maintain relationships without making sure that you are communicating honestly and openly with each other.
Even if you haven’t spoken to a colleague or client in a while, it pays to maintain a level of communication with them. We do this naturally with our friends but it can feel a bit clunky with work colleagues. The trick is to create regularity; making checking in with people whose relationship you value a habit rather than a chore.
This consistency in communication is particularly important in a hybrid work environment. It’s easy to maintain relationships when you bump into each other in the office but if you go for long periods of time without seeing someone, this can cause tension. If you haven’t spoken to a colleague in a while and then need to ask them for help, they are more likely to respond if you have spoken to them recently. People are more likely to assume the best intentions of others when they have interacted with them in some way.
Put simply, communication reminds people that you are human. Rather than just someone who is requesting help.
So, next time you are writing your to-do list, make sure that you include ‘managing relationships’ in there too. Believe us, it will pay off.