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Why You Need Effective Relationships at Work

From finding balance to finding coffee, these are the resources you need.

Key points

  • Boundaryless career paths require personal responsibility for network building.
  • Different people will provide different types of support depending on what you need.
  • Effective network-building starts with not overthinking relationships, setting up coffee chats, and getting to know colleagues interested in you.

In a few weeks, a new group of college graduates will walk across stages all over this country, ready to enter the workforce. A recent study by TimelyMD shows that these soon-to-be new professionals are eager and ready to work while also nervous about finances, their ability to be successful, and their general mental well-being.

None of this should be surprising. I would say that all of us, after two-plus years of COVID life, are eager and ready for normalcy and probably a bit nervous about money, stability, and our mental and emotional well-being. The good news is there are resources and support systems that can help with these things.

And one of the best places to find that support is through the relationships you can and should build with colleagues, supervisors, mentors, and sponsors.

Why do networks matter?

We used to believe professional success hinged on finding that one person: that mentor, that guru, that person who was older and wiser than you, who had power and position and could open doors for you. Certainly, those people still exist, and there can be value in seeking them out.

But it’s no longer enough to entrust your entire career path in favor of one person. What happens when you fall out of favor? What happens when they lose power or position? What happens when they’re just not as helpful as you thought?

Today’s career paths are boundaryless, which means they are not necessarily tied to one organization, industry, or relationship. It means that it is on you to develop your own path, seek out opportunities and challenges, and grow. And that means you will need many people, a network of people, to help you.

A broad, diverse network broadens your perspective. It widens and deepens your opportunities through additional connections. And it ensures that no one person has too much influence over you and your path.

While the day-to-day reality of your work might be focused on accomplishing specific tasks, work gets done through and with people. Building relationships with your colleagues will help you navigate organizational politics, figure out power structures, and understand those unwritten rules that can help or hinder success.

And, you never know, you might find that you actually like a few of these people, as a bonus. Nothing says you have to be friends with everyone at work. And, nothing says you can’t find a friend or two there, either. Other than sleep, you will spend most of your time at work. This means that it is one of your primary avenues for building deep professional and personal connections.

Building a relationship with your manager will help you understand the strategy and how to be successful in your role and seek out opportunities to grow in your career. You probably will not become friends with your manager, and that’s okay.

Remember, your manager is a human being, too. It’s okay to get to know them personally and learn about their interests and family and what they like to do in their spare time. But having a productive, positive working relationship with your manager is fundamental to your ability to be successful and your happiness and well-being at work.

Building relationships with mentors and sponsors will help you when you are questioning your next step, struggling with balance, and building resiliency. Your mentors may come from within or outside of the organization. These are your trusted, go-to people for wise counsel and advice who will guide and give you the objective feedback you need to grow and develop personally and professionally.

Your sponsors are people with more capital than you have, who are willing to spend a bit of it on you to help you advance. You need both, and in either case, the responsibility for building relationships with these people rests squarely on you. Don’t sit back waiting for people to come to you. Relationship-building is active, intentional work.

Finally, as you are learning a new organization, location, or role, your colleagues can be a great source of information on resources you can use, including physical and mental health professionals, financial planning resources, ways to get connected in the community, and even things like where to find the best grocery store or coffee shop.

Asking your colleagues for help and guidance isn’t a sign of weakness. And, it’s a great way to build connections with trusted, wise counselors who may eventually turn into mentors or friends.

How to Get Started

So, then, how do you do that work when you are new to the organization?

  • First, don’t overthink it. Work relationships, whether informal relationships with colleagues or deeper relationships with potential mentors are just like any other relationship in your life. It starts with a conversation. It starts with a genuine, authentic interest in another person.

Even if they are older than you, have different life experiences than you, or have a greater title than you, you can still find a way to be interested in them. These are the easiest people to be interested in because they have all that experience and wisdom you don’t currently possess.

Ask yourself: What am I genuinely curious about when it comes to this other person?

  • Second, set up intentional coffee chats with your new colleagues. These don’t need to be more than 15-30 minutes; people are busy, after all. The worst case with these conversations is you will get to know your new colleagues, what they are working on, and how they and their work fit into the organization.

All of this is useful information. Best case, you may find some deeper connections you want to pursue (see the next point below). Regardless, you are demonstrating to others that you value relationships and building your network and not sitting back waiting for others to do that work for you.

  • Third, as you start to get to know people in your organization, pay attention to those with whom you feel a deeper connection or those who seem to have good intentions towards you. Hopefully, these two groups will overlap, but not necessarily so. If someone is demonstrating real, genuine interest in you and your path, that is not to be taken lightly.

As you gain experience and knowledge, you will begin to identify better those individuals who should be in your network. But at first, you shouldn’t be in the business of cutting connections off. The broader, more diverse your network is, the more powerful it is.

Finally, remember that network-building is relationship-building. This isn’t about what you can get out of other people. You’re not completing a transaction. You’re not checking tasks off a list. You’re building relationships that are messy, complicated, and ideally positive but not always.

The way that you get other people to show up for you when you need them to is by doing the work to build trust and rapport and making meaningful contributions to their lives. That work takes time. But it will always, always pay off.

More from Allison E McWilliams Ph.D.
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