disappointed people

I doubt it will surprise you that most of us are not working in a self-sustaining team that can provide everything it needs. Instead, we frequently need to reach out across team and department boundaries for help in completing our work. We work in complex systems filled with people and technology that inject unexpected concerns and risk. We work in the land of handoffs and dependencies. If you are a student of flow, you learn quickly that it’s these handoffs and dependencies that have exponential, and undesirable, impacts on the time work takes to complete. It becomes clear that, in order to optimize how work flows through our systems, we have to address these touchpoints.

In doing so, you’ll almost certainly identify these two groups: those you don’t really know and those you wish you didn’t. Relying on people you don’t have any connection with can be challenging. Most likely, you don’t know how they think, how they work, or how they prioritize requests like yours. Relying on people you have a bad relationship with is considerably more stressful as you worry that your request may actually be de-prioritized or that it may be done sloppily due to the bad blood. Whether we like it or not, the ability to build and maintain quality relationships at work can be a determining factor in our success.  Let’s take a look at how to take the first, or next, step with both groups.

Reaching out to new faces

Look at the work you’ve completed recently and the work that you will complete in the near future in order and make two lists:

  1. those who need things from you and
  2. those you need things from.

Capture the who, what, how often, and how critical for each item in both lists.  If you’re unsure about the critical part, consider which are involved in areas where work gets bottlenecked or items that contain the most risk if it were to go wrong.  Having this information will allow you to create some kind of relative priority as you can’t tackle everything at once.

Start reaching out, in priority order, to the list of people that need things from you. This can be in any form: email, coffee, or quick chat. Whatever feels natural to get the ball rolling, though, I will say that the face-to-face discussions will work better. Make sure to introduce yourself, what you do, and say that you’re reaching out because her team often needs things from yours and you want to find out how your team can improve from her perspective.  Once you get some feedback, actually follow through on some of it and make sure the efforts result in perceived improvement from those stakeholders. At this point, you’ve had some mutually beneficial interactions and a foundation to keep building on is formed.

Now it’s time to move onto the the list of people you need things from. Sure, you could start with this list, but now you very likely have earned some good reputation vibes going on in your company by reaching out to others and improving your service. I’d label this social capital that you have banked and might be able to leverage when you need it. Explained in another way, you’re treating others in the way you’d like to see yourself be treated. Don’t forget to follow up with these teams too and let them know what’s working and what’s not. Remember, that you’re building relationships here and show appreciation for their efforts.

Healing old wounds

When trying to mend damaged relationships, I learned that working together towards common goals can begin to break through layers of bad relationship cruft. When I was managing a team at F5 Networks, another department decided they were going to take over the company website and make it “much better.” It felt like a hostile takeover to my team and, to rub salt in the wound, there was really no interaction between the acquiring team and my team to learn anything about the site in question. Before long we were in a situation where the developers on my team knew about all of the potential pitfalls and secretly hoped the acquiring team would fail because they were greedy and too arrogant to realize that we could help. This isn’t a situation you want to see in a company.

Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of Kumbaya being sung in the halls and there was no number of FFI’s (forced fun initiatives) that we could inflict on the teams to bring them together in any meaningful way. It seemed clear that the only way that might work was to give them a project that would require them to work together. There definitely wasn’t anything to lose by trying.

Now, this project required a lot of careful curation and facilitation by leaders in both areas (who were working on relationships at their level too) to get through the many complaints about the “other” team. But, in the end, we could see people slowly realizing that the people on the other team weren’t as horrible as they thought. They loved coding the same way they did, they disliked (and liked) many of the same things, and they appreciated each others’ contributions – especially when they weren’t overthinking it. They weren’t all best friends at the end of the project, but there was some semblance of mutual respect, even if it was still shaky. This experience definitely taught me that working together can help people unlock lots of heavy mental baggage and focus on the job at hand – making them all happier in the process. It was clear to all that working together was good medicine.

The point of it all

There are numerous benefits to building and maintaining good relationships at work and two of the biggest are increased morale and engagement. At a more tactical level, its good to have the foundation of relationships laid before you have a critical need so that you don’t have to try to rush through lots of relationship building in the middle of a crisis. Relationship building isn’t always easy, but taking the first step is important. Without that, you never start. Once you start, you can work through the challenges as they arise, with help and guidance from others (and the internet!)

I would love to hear from readers about their relationship situations. How did you reach out and build new relationships? How did you mend broken ones? Please add your comments to start the conversation!