“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, we’re all in the people business”

I remember these words vividly, spoken to me by my uncle Morris as he escorted me to the elevator of his Park Avenue office building.  I was visiting New York City for interviews the summer before my senior year of college and I swung by for a visit on my way out of town.  His words hung with me for a second as the elevator door opened and I got in.

Thinking back to that moment – nearly 10 years ago – Morris’ words have never rung more true for me than they do today.

I read lots of business books about how to succeed in corporate cultures and how to win friends and influence people – but when it comes to building authentic relationships, I’ve found that there really is no secret trick.  Sure – there are formulas written by business gurus – but there’s something about approaching relationships formulaically that lacks true authenticity.

I believe the process of building relationships should be rather straightforward.  Whether it’s with a client, a direct report or a colleague – the process is the same and it’s centered on understanding and trust.  Here’s what’s been working for me:

1)   Try to see the world through the other person’s eyes.

The first step to building an authentic relationship is to understand the person you’re working with.  How do they see their role?  What do they think their job is and where do they think they add value?  Also, what does that person need to do in order to get promoted, rewarded, or otherwise lauded by her colleagues?  Once you truly understand the person you’re working with, you can start asking yourself questions like: what would I want to do if I were this person?  And how can I help this person better do her job and achieve her mission.

2)   Help the other person see the world through your eyes.

Just as you’ve taken steps to understand the other person, make it easy for them to understand you.  Help them understand your goals, aspirations and what value you see yourself adding.  It can sometimes help to show vulnerability here – explain what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.  The more honest you are, the better; it will allow the other person the opportunity to reciprocate and list their strengths and weaknesses as well.

3)   Be honest above all else.

If you under deliver on a promise or commit an error, be emphatically honest about your failure.  Own the mistake and make sure the other person understands the reason for the miss.  Was the work harder than originally planned?  Did the person who was working on the project get sick?  Or did you simply sign up to deliver too much to begin with?  If it’s something you can’t say, be honest about that too.  Nothing tears a relationship apart faster than dishonesty.

4)   Push toward business casual.

Authentic relationships are never strictly formal.  Relax, let your guard down, and try to make the other person feel comfortable too.  The more casual you can make the relationship (while still maintaining baseline professional boundaries), the faster the relationship will progress.

5)   Take a genuine interest in the other person and their lives.

It’s simply more pleasant to be surrounded by people who take a genuine interest in your life.  We’re not robots and we spend the majority of our time at work, so taking relationships to an appropriately personal level never hurts.  Start with the conversational strongholds of “news, sports, weather” – and then progress to more personal topics, like weekend or vacation plans.  It’s just nicer to be around friendly, interested people.

The more time you invest in your relationships, the less time you will have to spend rehearsing formal presentations, making fancy power point decks and drafting long, complicated emails.  When you have truly authentic relationships, a phone call or quick drop-by at the person’s desk is usually all you need to do to accomplish your goals.

On Building Authentic Relationships
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  • Sure – but saying that “building relationships is important” and that “building a business relationship is no different from building a non-business relationship” are not, to my mind, particularly useful conclusions.

    Essentially, your five points boil down to: “Treat the other person like a human being, and genuinely care about them” (as opposed to relying on a strictly transactional relationship). That’s true, but the approach and techniques you suggest here (for business) are exactly the same as what you’d use to build any relationship (classmate, family member, club member, etc).

    The question that I have – which business business books have thus far failed to address – is: Given what is uniquely different about business relationships, how should I change what I do normally?

    That begs the question of what is uniquely different. As far as I can tell, the biggest factor is that it’s a matter of scale: you need to maintain relationships with far more people, and you have far less time to establish any one relationship as a consequence. Worse, you may only first meet someone when you need something from them, and the initial phases of your relationship are transactional, not constructive.

    The solution to the question “How can I maintain more and better business relationships?” should not reduce to “Be more social, so you have more relationships.”

    Now, it’s possible that there is no good solution to the “business problem” – but then much business work on communication and relationships reduces to general education on communication and relationships that apply to the human condition as a whole, and not to a small sector. This is not a bad thing, per se, but isolating the discussion to the business realm only impoverishes the topic.

    P.S. One reason interpersonal skills are more important in business than in “everyday” life is because there’s a greater ROI, not because it’s a different realm. Many people go through life surrounded by family, friends, and a community that doesn’t change significantly from when they were a child. Also, what’s going to happen if you and Aunt Sally never get along and make Thanksgiving miserable for everyone else? You eat less at Thanksgiving and hit your diet goal more easily?

    P.P.S. I disagree with your point (4) – I think that you can have a solid relationship in a formal, circumscribed fashion. Pushing to bring down barriers can be a violation of trust (if the recipient doesn’t want to bring them down). However, I’d agree with your point if redefined differently: Do not stand on ceremony. A lot of “business formalism” is a kind of ceremony, which describes how each person should behave based on their role/experience. It’s a helpful crutch, since it means you can engage with people you don’t really know quickly and efficiently. But if you engage with someone multiple times, the ceremony becomes restrictive – it changes from being a helpful crutch to initiate and continue conversation, and turns into a straightjacket that prevents you from talking about things you’d both like to discuss. The key factor is not being casual, it’s removing rituals of polite behavior that are no longer necessary.

    P.P.P.S. Your last paragraph suggests that building these relationships will make it easier to get things done, since you can just “drop-by at the person’s desk” and convince them, instead of creating “long, complicated emails.” Now, this may be good – I’m always a big fan of reducing elapsed time – but on the other hand, it seems awfully familiar to the halo effect. That is, you like me (for reasons outside work), so you trust me (on things inside work) or are willing to go along with me (because I’m enthusiastic and you like me). The problem occurs when people start relying on personal trust to replace reasoning and tackling the problem space (which is best performed by debating with other qualified people). That may happen during resource constraints, or it may happen people adopt groupthink.

    I’d suggest replacing with something along the lines of: The more time you invest in your relationships, the easier it is for you to communicate with your colleagues, and your colleagues to communicate with you. Understanding becomes cumulative across the relationship, so you would otherwise spend introducing background material is spared, and – even better – your colleagues will start to know both what your blind spots are, and pre-emptively cover them, and where you have a comparative advantage on an area, and not waste time debating it.

  • I agree with a lot of the things you state above, however I somewhat disagree with your assertion that business relationships are a different discipline than personal relationships. I suppose the meta-point I’m trying to make is that when business relationships are authentic, they’re fundamentally no different than personal relationships.

  • I don’t disagree – I think that an authentic relationship between two people is fundamentally the same, regardless of initial context.

    But at the same time, I think that context influences most relationships, because people lack the ability (time, bandwidth, etc) to sustain hundreds or thousands of authentic relationships; cf Dunbar’s Number.

    I’d suggest that one aspect of “business communication” that makes business, in general, successful is a set of semi-formalized rules of engagement that everyone adopts, minimizing communication failure.