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Hoping for a Promotion? Don't Neglect Relationships

Positive relationships can be career difference-makers.

Key points

  • For career purposes, building relationships at work can be almost as valuable as building technical skills.
  • Positive relationships are a lubricant that keeps an organization's interpersonal machinery running smoothly.
  • Building such relationships doesn't have to be crassly political, but can be a worthwhile investment of time.

Every once in a great while you come across a statement that perfectly encapsulates something you had long intuitively felt but never articulated.

This was my reaction when I recently read a management tip from Harvard Business Review on promotions and relationships.

Source: Alexander Suhorucov/Pexels
A network of positive working relationships is a career asset.
Source: Alexander Suhorucov/Pexels

"Have you ever been told that you’re 'just not ready' for a promotion, despite a successful track record?" the short article asked. "This type of feedback often means that you’ve spent too much time building your skills—and not enough time building relationships."

It was a concise, insightful statement that touched on a dynamic I had observed many times throughout a long management career. We like to think the working world is a perfect meritocracy where talents and skills are always accurately rewarded, but the reality is it's a highly imperfect meritocracy where relationships can be difference makers.

Looking beyond daily tasks

I say this not with any sense of grievance or value judgment; I mean it to be simply an objective observation about the working world. As a wise old anonymous philosopher once observed, "It is what it is." And since this is the way the working world often is, it only makes good career sense to pay attention to it.

Looking back on the arc of my own career, it's clear to me now that my younger self had a pretty reasonable amount of technical expertise ... but for years I was focused only on "doing my own job" and doing it well. When I began to look beyond my own daily tasks and started developing deeper working relationships and a broader understanding of organizational issues, my career began to accelerate. By "working relationships," I mean not only with my direct manager (though that's an important one for sure), but also with peers, with colleagues, and with other respected influencers in the company.

Similarly (or, more accurately, conversely), over the years there were talented people I managed whom I could not get promoted, despite my efforts to do so, because they had not built a solid network of relationships around the company and thus were not known and trusted as well as they should have been. Perhaps it was partly my fault for not advocating as forcefully or persuasively as I could have, but it was also partly theirs for not having nurtured the kind of relationships that would have helped pave their way.

Positive relationships are a lubricant that keeps an organization's interpersonal machinery running smoothly. Without a lubricant, machinery easily breaks drown.

This is not to say we should all be wildly political animals; I'm in no way advocating behavior that is crassly or obnoxiously self-promoting. I'm simply saying that it's a worthwhile investment of time to build certain workplace relationships, to gain an understanding of what business matters other people are dealing with, and to be a constructive force, a good team player who can be counted on when hard issues arise, as they always do.

Over the years I attended innumerable management meetings where a potential promotion was being discussed, and questions would commonly be posed along the lines of "What does Johnson think of her? ... or Mary over in HR? ... or how well does she get along with Davis, that go-to project manager in IT?" Much as we'd like to think such judgments are random and peripheral, the reality is they can be make-or-break data points in lean organizations where promotions are valued and hard to come by.

A solid network of positive working relationships helps make tough management decisions a whole lot easier.


Harvard Business Review, The Management Tip of the Day, April 20, 2021. "To Get Promoted, Build Your Relationships."