September 1st, 2020

Do Your Work Relationships Matter?

This article is part 2 of our “Women in the workplace” collection. In February, I had the opportunity to interview professional women from different races, backgrounds, ages, countries,  experiences and industries. 

We spoke candidly about our challenges, frustrations, failures and successes - and how they can help you on your career journey. 

We made the editorial decision to anonymize each woman so that they didn’t have to worry about self-editing. This helped us bring you the rawest response to each question. Each article is focused around a theme: you can read it as a stand alone or as part of the collection. 

Working with people you get on with… Solving problems and building things with people you admire… 

These seemingly small things make life at work easier. Lighter. More challenging (in a good way). 

The right people make a colossal difference to your career.

“Having the right people is… It’s everything.”

A. didn’t always feel this way. Now she can’t imagine how her career (and life) would’ve turned out if things had been different.

It’s interesting because I’m definitely an introvert. And not just being an introvert. I am extremely shy. And I never really put a lot of thought in most of my life about having a community. 

I mean... I’ve always had some friends and I loved them but I started a new job and I wanted to keep to myself… I was like, “I’m just going to do my work and get on out of here.” 

But I realize, behaving like that, it just keeps you insular. And when you have a problem, you deal with it by yourself. And when things are hard, you’re really kind of on your own. 

My first work buddy- this woman named K. - she started and on her first day she said “We’re going to get sushi.” 

And I was like “I don’t want to get sushi with you but I guess we’re going to get sushi.”

I was used to having lunch alone in my car every day. And just her being such a warm and lovely person got me out of my shell. 

Almost immediately I could feel how much more open things could be.

And just having someone to talk to like “Oh gosh this is hard” or just vent when things got frustrating made a huge difference. And overtime that spun into having deeper - understanding that I could have deeper - relationships with people at my work. 

Developing a deeper relationship with my manager, finding a mentor, like all of those things just opened up. 

And having a mentor, I think, is one of the best things anyone could have because even if they’re just someone who has just a slight amount of experience that’s different than yours, it helps you put things in perspective.

Relationships with others can show us a new world. (A new fantastic point of view.) They can create context and show you things you couldn’t see alone. 

We get into our own heads and have our own patterns. You can see something 100 times and you’re like “it’s a clock. It’s a clock. It’s a clock.” And you just need someone who’s got a little bit of different experience than you to say “Actually, it’s a watch.” And then you can go “Oh my god, mind blown.”

It just really pushes you forward.

I feel really lucky for the people who just forced themselves into my life. Honestly I didn’t even go find them so I’m honestly so blessed.

Having people around you, and having it truly be a community and people who support you and take interest in your development, it gives you confidence and emotional space to take risks.You’ll feel like you’re supported. 

I’ll be a totally different person if it wasn’t for those folks. 

Opening yourself up to people isn’t easy. It’s especially hard if you tend to lean towards self-sufficiency. So I asked A. what she’d say to someone in that position. To someone who’s a bit more introverted and mainly interested in doing a good job but still craving some kind of human interaction. 

“People have more empathy than you think”

I can think of three things. 

1. Pretty much everyone that you’re working with- even if they’re like 5 steps above you- was in your position at some point in time. And they’ll probably have a lot more empathy for you than you think.

2. It’s really fair to ask someone to go for coffee. It’s a really low risk thing. And if they can’t, then they can’t. But they’re usually really willing to do it. 

If you do ask someone for coffee, try and think about… if there’s something that you might be able to offer them in exchange for their time.

It doesn’t have to be a huge momentous thing but it could be as simple as paying for their coffee. It could be a little bit more complex like offering to help them out with research on their project or maybe if they’re really interested in a particular thing and you share that interest, maybe you’re offering some time to talk about something that you’re both really into. 

Try to approach it… not like a date…  but don’t come like a wet fish and expect them to impart knowledge on you. Try to figure out how to make it an exchange. You will feel better for it.

3. The third thing is… Even if you’re not necessarily looking for a mentor or a sponsor it’s just good to make friends. 

Make friends with people in your own department or make friends across departments (that’s the most important kind of friend) and grab lunch together, go out for a coffee, drinks, watch sports, whatever the thing is. It helps you bring your authentic self to work and that’s like a huge, huge deal. 

Everyone gets nervous

One of my main frustrations with advice about how to build better relationships is the lack of clear, specific guidance. 

Sometimes I feel like I need a checklist for every interaction. Like it would be easier to handle things by myself instead of putting myself out there and introducing other variables. Variables like making mistakes, saying the wrong thing, looking stupid. 

At the start of my career, I kept looking for clear cut advice on how to build relationships that leaves no room for error. (A bit like an android’s guide to human-ing.) Eventually I realized… there’s no such thing. 

People are vibrant, alive, changeable. We don’t always respond the same way to the same thing. 

There are no magic words you can say to someone that guarantee success. (Otherwise every sales rep on the planet would be using the exact same sales script verbatim.)

Relationships - like most things - are context dependent. You will make mistakes. Sometimes you’ll try to connect with someone and the whole thing will backfire spectacularly. And it won’t even be because of something you did. 

Here’s what I learned: It’s not just about me. That fear, that nervousness? It assumes that you have control over other person’s responses. That there’s an ideal way to handle a situation. The truth is… we are all working it out as we go along. We are all trying to figure out how to talk to each other, how to work together, how to push through a devastating day. 

There’s no formula but A.’s words rings true: “People have more empathy than you think.” So next time you have a chance to connect with a coworker, a mentor, someone you admire, why not do the hard thing and just start talking?

P.S. Because I’m a big fan of taking my own advice, I tried this whole “talking to people” thing at the last conference I went to - Microconf ‘19. Was it scary? Yup. Did anything terrible happen because I said the wrong thing? Nope. 

Instead, I met some awesome people. (Even though I spent half an evening with green stuff in my teeth that no one thought to mention. (Yuuuuuuup. Not at all mortifying.) 

So if me and the basil from my chicken-pesto sandwich can do it… so can you.