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Relationship building is more important than ever in 2021—here's why

a man and woman are shaking hands to show relationship building

In our global world of work, all of us are interdependent on one another in some fashion. Even seemingly solitary jobs are part of a larger ecosystem of intricate moving parts where we must interact to deliver our service, product, education, or research. 

When we work together effectively, we provide each other different perspectives and viewpoints that enhance our problem-solving abilities and help us all perform at a higher level.

Authentic relationship building in practice

Twelve years ago, I worked at Vanderbilt University as an assistant director at the Career Center. Our newest staff member, Christy, had been there 2 weeks and seemed like a great addition to the team, but I didn't know her that well at the time. 

It was a balmy Tuesday in July and I had a presentation the next day and anticipated spending the afternoon compiling 35-page booklets for a staff training I was leading.

Of course, life intervened and I had unexpected situations to handle that afternoon, leaving me to start this at the end of the workday. This would have been fine, but then the copier started acting up and all the sheets were coming out crumpled.

Christy came back to the copy room and immediately jumped in - not only becoming the copy machine whisperer, but also helping me get everything together. I protested that she didn't have to take time from her own evening, but she said she wouldn't think of leaving me until we finished.

Two hours later, we high-fived as we looked at the stack of binders on the table.

I have no doubt I would have been there till 9 or 10pm had I been alone with that finicky copier. We grabbed dinner that night and I learned what brought her to Nashville and we bonded over being only children and other similarities. 

Make a lasting impression

As Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." That evening, I was struck by how she sensed what I needed without being asked and stayed for the long haul. 

It may have been two hours, but those two hours meant the world to me in that moment. I’m happy to say the presentation went really well the next day, but more importantly, Christy is one of my closest friends to this day.

Table of contents
Cultivating strong relationships is the backbone of a thriving career
Quality matters when it comes to relationship building
Motivations matter
Empathy and relationship building
How to cultivate empathy (if it doesn't come naturally)
Harness your emotional intelligence
14 additional strategies for professional relationship building
Relationship building in the Age of Social Distancing and Remote work
Why relationship building is worth the effort

Cultivating strong relationships is the backbone of a thriving career

That story shows that cultivating strong relationships has the potential not only to boost our careers, but can actually make our work more enjoyable. Many of us spend more time at work than we do with our own families. While no one says you must be best friends with your coworkers, having strong relationships based on mutual respect certainly enhances the experience of work. 

Think back to your worst jobs. While the content of the work is important, in many cases, workers cite interpersonal issues with their boss or their team as a source of unhappiness.

There is strong scientific evidence to support that interpersonal conflict results in poor job outcomes, including:

  • quitting a job you would otherwise be happy at
  • irrational decision making
  • political or self-serving behavior, among other things

Of course avoiding conflict at all costs isn’t the answer (that’s just another form of political behavior with some of its own undesirable outcomes). But simple, effective relationship building that helps you grow your career and feel more fulfilled is.

Quality matters when it comes to relationship building

When talking about relationship building, we want to move beyond surface level interactions with coworkers that are cordial, yet lack authenticity. Sure, talking about the weather or latest headlines will suffice, but does that forge the bond that helps you do your best work? 

You want to strive for meaningful work relationships that aren’t fake or phony and provide a safe space to stretch and grow as a team; a place conducive to innovation and productivity. 

So, what is the key to authentic relationship building?

The answer lies in a combination of factors that serve as the foundation for effective communication, which is an essential component to relationship building.

Motivations matter

Self-awareness is critical to relationship building because we have to understand what drives us to behave the way we do. We are all a compilation of our past experiences and those affect the lens through which we see the world and our reactions to people and situations. It's why two people can see the same situation in different ways. 

How mis-matched motivations (without awareness) can lead to conflict:

For example, if a supervisor requests a weekly check-in with an employee, one may see it as a great opportunity to connect and be on the same page, while another may fear being micromanaged based on the experience they had with a past boss at a prior company. The supervisor’s intentions were intended to provide support to the team yet received in very different ways. 

Utilizing F4S assessment tools allows you to not only gain insights into your own motivations, but your team’s as well. If that supervisor better understood the second employee’s need for autonomy, she could have framed the conversation in a different way and explained the changes in language that motivated the employee, rather than provoke a knee-jerk sense of fear.

Accommodating others' preferences doesn't mean abandoning your own.

Some people may bristle at the idea of having to change your communication style for others and think we are asking others to be mind readers, but that’s not the case. Simply taking the time to listen to others and consider where others are coming from can make a world of difference in building relationships.

You will still have your own style, yet be receptive to those with different views and motivations. For example, security may mean everything to one person, while another values freedom. Neither are wrong, they are just different and reflect their individual experiences and motivations. 

We (mis)interpret events through our own lens of what matters to us. This is the root of all conflict.

Oftentimes, there are multiple ways to interpret one’s actions. In the weekly check-in example above, a supervisor without an understanding of motivations may think the employee complaining about the meetings is disgruntled and being difficult, but the supervisor with that knowledge would understand it was not personal. They would realize how transparency in the message could go a long way towards easing the mind of her employee, ensuring a better team dynamic. 

When armed with information about motivations from assessments like F4S and learning to truly listen to people, it’s much easier to understand how to interpret another’s actions and oftentimes, provide them the benefit of the doubt. 

Remember — improving how you work with others is two-way street. By using a tool like F4S to build awareness around individual motivations with the rest of your team, you help others to understand and be mindful of your own personal preferences as well.

Relationships are like tennis matches with messages constantly going back and forth. By showing a willingness to understand the other person (and your own preferences and biases), you can better craft your return messages and connect on a deeper level.

Empathy and relationship building

Empathy refers to the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. It’s one thing to understand that your coworker is motivated by the need for autonomy, but another to try and put yourself in that person’s shoes. 

When you demonstrate empathy, you show a willingness to go beyond your own motivations and think about another person’s experience. Think of Christy helping me that evening at Vanderbilt. She saw me struggling and thought how she would feel and what she would want someone to do for her in that situation. In the context of developing relationships, a little empathy goes a long way.

Empathy is a powerful tool that neutralizes negativity, while increasing job satisfaction, workplace motivation and productivity. Likely due, in part, to increasing gender equity in the workplace, our understanding of leadership is evolving and empathy (which has not always been prized in leadership as it was not a traditionally ‘masculine’ trait) is increasingly recognized as a key component of leadership effectiveness.

The science of empathy and being mindful of others: 

  • Rae Shanahan, Chief Strategy Officer at Businessolver, conducted a study that found that nine out of ten employees, professionals and CEOs value the importance of empathy to an organization and see it as critical to the mental health of employees.
  • Google explored several team dynamics with their Project Aristotle that found the most successful teams provided each member time and space to contribute, which fosters innovation. The more extroverted members of the group may speak up first, but healthy teams value the input of all members and allow time for the introverts to reflect and share their thoughts, which combined with the others, can help the group break through barriers.

How to cultivate empathy (if it doesn't come naturally)

If empathy does not come naturally to you and you’re worried it will negatively impact your relationship building efforts, do not fret – this is something that you can build over time. Just as you go to the gym to gain muscle, you can try exercises to increase your sense of empathy. 

The next time you see someone struggling, ask yourself how you would feel in that situation and think of what you would need. If it’s possible, help that person, even if it’s something as simple as a reassuring smile or hello. 

Reading fiction is another way to immerse yourself in the perspective of another. Finally, being aware of your own motivations can point out blind spots that you have when it comes to others and the world. Acknowledging and celebrating a diversity of viewpoints is a hallmark of successful relationship building.

Harness your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a concept coined by Salovey and Mayer in 1990 and then popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book that describes the ability to not only understand and manage your own emotions, but also understand the emotions of the people around you.

People with high emotional intelligence recognize the effect of their own behavior on others. They utilize understanding of themselves and others to help them navigate the maze of social situations we encounter each day. 

Emotional intelligence in practice

For example, if a coworker comes in and is grumpy at the coffee maker, are you going to take it personally and let it ruin your day? Or, do you take a moment and ask them if they are okay? You may find out that their car broke down that morning or they are worried about a family member who is sick. It goes back to not taking things personally and recognizing all the variables behind a person’s mood. 

The person with high emotional intelligence sees a bigger picture and does not automatically catastrophize minor interactions and jump to negative conclusions about the relationship with that person as a whole (he does not like me). 

Those with emotional intelligence have feelings like everyone else, but they also know that not everything is about them. 

Teams need emotionally intelligent leaders

High levels of emotional intelligence provide resiliency to a team where people don’t feel like they have to walk on eggshells with one another and can take chances and suggest new ideas without fear of ridicule. They are better equipped to navigate change, the unexpected and support each other through the journey.

Emotional intelligence is often seen as essential for effective leaders and reflects intentionality in communication with others. You are actively making an effort to connect with people and meet them where they are at emotionally.

You can hone your emotional intelligence by recognizing how your communication (both verbal and nonverbal) impacts others, which can go a long way in improving your relationships.

14 additional strategies for professional relationship building

Besides understanding your motivations, building empathy and utilizing your emotional intelligence, there are myriad of strategies to improve your relationship building skills.

Practicing the following 13 strategies on a regular basis will in turn help boost your emotional intelligence and empathy skills, so it really is a win-win situation.

1 - Active listening – Focus on what the person is saying and how they're saying it, rather than just thinking about what you're going to say next.

2 - Remember names - People love hearing the sound of their own name. If you struggle to remember names, try and think of someone you know who has that same name and or a celebrity and use that association to remember it later. Also, be sure you are listening when they say their name the first time. If it’s a loud room and you didn’t hear it correctly, this is your window to ask again. Otherwise, it gets awkward if you wait until later after seeing them again.

3 - Remember personal details - After meeting with new clients or contacts, write a few details about your conversation in a note on your phone. Include the names of their significant other or pet if they mentioned it. Before you see them next, review your notes and ask about people and events important to them.

4 - Respect differences and welcome diversity – Be open to people with different ideas and opinions from your own. The best teams have a variety of ideas and challenge each other to open their worlds to new concepts; that's what fosters innovation. 

5 - Be present - Be sure to put your phone down and stay engaged in the conversation in the moment with the person you are with - do not make them feel as if you are waiting for a more important message. 

6 - Ask questions - This shows you are interested in what people have to say and want to learn more about them. 

7 - Share appropriately - Strike the balance between sharing too little and too much. If you divulge extremely personal details too soon, it can make people uncomfortable. If you hardly ever say anything about yourself, it can make it hard for people to get to know you. Gradually share more about yourself as you get to know someone within the appropriate bounds of that relationship whether personal or professional. 

8 - Be genuine - Don't try and be something you're not. Have confidence regarding what you have to offer the world and your team. When it comes to others, be authentic and have an interest in learning about them. 

9 - Don't put too much pressure on the relationship - Let the relationship develop naturally and don't try and make it move too fast. This is true for professional networking during normal times and even more important during times of uncertainly.

10 - Avoid assumptions - Don't assume that people will feel the same way about something that you do. We all have different experiences and backgrounds that make us who we are. It's these differences that make the world interesting. Ask questions and learn from others.

11 - Communicate clearly - Remember that people cannot reach your mind and that's important to clearly convey what you are feeling and thinking in an appropriate manner. Over-communicating is actually the key to effective communication when you are connecting virtually!

12 - Respect privacy - If someone shares something with you, keep it to yourself. How would you feel if somebody shared details about you that you did not intend? 

13 - Give the benefit of the doubt - Appreciate the spirit in which somebody is saying something. Constructive criticism is never easy to hear, but sometimes it's exactly what we need to grow. Consider a person’s intentions and if they are truly trying to help. Think back to times when you said something that didn’t come across the way you intended.

14 - Take a chance - Relationships start because someone took a chance to reach out to another. Don't always be the one waiting for somebody else to reach out to you. 

Relationship building in the Age of Social Distancing and Remote work

Building relationships when most of the world is stuck at home in the middle of a global crisis adds another layer of complexity, but it underscores our commonalities. 

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published a "A Theory of Human Motivation" in Psychological Review, which outlined a Hierarchy of Needs describing a pyramid of human needs from those most pressing physiological and safety needs at the bottom layers of the pyramid (air, water, food, sleep, shelter, health, security, employment) to higher level needs like belonging and human connection, esteem, and at the top, self-actualization (achieving one’s full potential).

We need authentic relationships now, more than ever.

Given the global pandemic, millions are being directly affected and either dealing with a health crisis for themselves, their families, facing loss of loved ones, or finding their basic needs in jeopardy as a result of the economic fallout. For others, the direct effects have not been as severe, yet the fear, sadness and prevailing uncertainty loom in the air. 

How is one supposed to develop relationships under these conditions? Is everything on hold for now?

Now more than ever, we need each other to get through this, even when practicing social distancing. We may not have the water cooler or coffee machine to congregate around or office to go to, yet we are fortunate to have the power of technology to keep us connected.

The same tips for relationship building apply here as well, even when video conferencing and conducting appointments on the phone.

How to build relationships and network, even while working from home:

1 - Focus on building psychological safety for yourself and your colleagues. This is a great post on psychological safety to help you get started.

2 - Prioritize team bonding. Leave the status updates for Slack, and the video meetings for actual human connection.

(Here are some remote team building activities to help you boost morale and trust in rough times.)

3 - Listen first, and be patient. This is especially important when people are experiencing external issues (whether that means a family member getting sick, a high level of stress, or even just technology issues). 

4 - Remember that everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances. 

People all react differently to stress and we may not understand the full extent of how current events are affecting our colleagues, so practice empathy. We must be as flexible as possible understanding that normal expectations cannot apply to these tumultuous times. 

5 - Seek out ways to be there for your team and contacts, even if it’s simply texting or Facetiming to check on someone and see how they are doing. 

6 - Follow their lead. When connecting with clients or anyone, let them set the conversational tone. Some may want to talk about world events for a few minutes before beginning, while others may want to dive into the task at hand as a respite from all the distressing news. Be sure to hone into both the message at hand and how it’s being delivered to frame your responses accordingly.

Note: You can always jump into F4S before a meeting to see the participant’s preferred conversation style. 

If they have a high motivation for affective communication, make sure to allow for extra time to talk about their personal circumstances and emotions. Someone who is more motivated for neutral communication might not find this as essential, but it’s still a good idea to give them the space and freedom to share if they want to.

Why relationship building is worth the effort

Genuine connections enrich both our professional and personal lives.

Relationship building takes time and energy, yet has the potential to open our lives to new and wonderful experiences. 

Yes, you might turn a stranger into your next client, boss, or co-founder. They could even introduce you to your dream mentor. But when you approach relationship building in the traditional 'networking' sense, you're much less likely to form a lasting bond.

Relationships built on authenticity are the ones most likely to bring you those career-boosting opportunities you're excited about, so keep that in mind!

Our world and the way we connect may be changing rapidly, but our need to connect remains. Take the time, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

Invite your coworkers and friends to create a free F4S account, so you can get to know what makes them tick.


This article was written by Tiffany Franklin, who has been a career coach since 1998, guiding over 6,000 job seekers of all levels and industries through the finer points of a job search. She currently works as Associate Director for Career Services at an Ivy League university where she helps freshmen through Ph.Ds. and alumni with all aspects of their career search.

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