I am currently teaching a course in the Mohawk College and CARA Research Administration Certificate program. As part of this, I’ve been writing essays around each week’s discussion topic, in response to the discussions and reflections by the students. The next of these is on the topic of the building effective relationships for project management.
Walk across the burning bridge*: Several students described situations of relationship re-building – where a relationship had been good but now was not, and how they fixed it. A common effective approach is to shake things up – do something different and unexpected to get the other party’s attention and open up an opportunity for dialogue. Combine this with being open and honest about your perspective, owning your part in the relationship challenge, and being respectful can lead quickly to resolution.
This is related to a concept in conflict resolution – getting to the root cause. People “not getting along” is most often associated with some unknown or even unrelated cause. Unspoken expectations, lingering resentments or hurt feelings create tension and conflict in relationships, but underneath those there is usually a thing that exists or has happened that started it all. While we can’t undo the past or even make up for it in many cases, getting to the root of the problem gives us a starting point for making things better.
What’s the story? When we do find ourselves in a challenge relationship spot, we need to be sure that we’re not ascribing intent that is not really there. When we find that we’re reading intent into behaviour, we need to step back and consider what story we’re telling ourselves and how reasonable is that. There were several examples from the class of individuals in the workplace who were assessed as rude or standoffish based on their actions and tone, and so were perceived to be a bad fit for the team, even thinking they’re “too good” for the role.
Not a one-time deal: All relationships take some work. They are ongoing things, not one-time encounters, and so history can matter when present-day challenges occur. When building relationships, we should be consistent in our actions so that we’re seen as respectful, honest and reliable. Only being nice when we need a favour or when we’re apologizing will not build a relationship and will only work so many times.
Did you hear? Far too often, gossip is behind the story. Gossip is a symptom of a toxic work environment, and can be far more harmful that anyone imagines (this is one of the best analogies I’ve ever seen). Whenever confronted with gossip or the temptation to pass it on, we should apply the THINK principle:
Is it True?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Inspiring? In other words, does it make anything better?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Kind?
We can also remember this: “…the majority of rumours are a combination of leaked information and the astounding imaginations of numerous storytellers. And, of course, the hope that things aren't really as boring as they seem on the surface…” (from The Stranger, by Max Frei).
Vulnerability: Effective relationships with anyone require each of us to allow a little bit of vulnerability in ourselves and others. This comes with emotional exposure, requiring a bit of bravery and assertiveness. We want others to be open and honest with us, so we have to be prepared to do that, too, sometimes proactively if we want to build or rebuild. Yes, it might not work, and we might even feel hurt, but the potential for the positive is the best reason for trying. Don’t take my word for it, check out Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly and her excellent TED talk.
Remember why we’re here: When we’re at work, we need to remember why we’re there: to work. Ditto when we’re working on a project – the project is paramount. Effective relationships contribute to getting stuff done. We can be buddies and friends, even good friends, and that contributes often to effective work, but comes with the risk that a disruption in the friendship spills over into the work. We should also be able to work with people we don’t like – as long as the relationship is respectful and appropriate, we can focus on the work and not on the person. If we’re managers of people, it becomes even more important to ensure that friendships don’t interfere with the decisions and actions we need to take for the work and workplace.
* Lyric borrowed from Michelle Shocked, Anchorage. Pub 1988
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.