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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

The Underrated Career Lesson I Learned After I Crashed and Burned at Work

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I nailed every word of the presentation. I articulated my points, my visual aids were clear, and my data outlined every reason my peers should get on board with my new big project: launching a peer-coaching program. This initiative was sure to make me shine in my role as a leadership coach.

But as I looked up from my slides, I could see that the audience was unmoved. Several said they simply didn’t have time for it. Others sat silently, but the look on their faces told me all I needed to know: They weren’t into it and wouldn’t support it—or me.

I walked out of the room defeated. Without the critical backing of this group, my project was doomed to fail.

Afterward, I sought out my boss for feedback, but her candid response left me even more stunned. “You should take the time to get to know each of your co-workers personally; they all have really interesting stories to tell.”

Huh? What did getting to know my colleagues have anything to do with working together professionally? How is knowing what position Greg’s kid plays in little league going to help me to get my work done? Or where Jane is getting married?

I considered myself a caring person. I used to be a social worker! But, as I thought more about my boss’ advice, it dawned on me that perhaps there was a disconnect between how my new co-workers expected me to act and how I was behaving. I’d completely failed to recognize the culture of my new workplace—not to mention the fact that building relationships with co-workers beyond spreadsheet data had been increasing in importance for a while.

When team members came into my office and wanted to chat about their weekends, I half-listened before hastily wrapping up the conversation with a “glad to hear, gotta go back to work.” When people asked me to lunch, I told them I had a big deadline (which most of the time I did), and replied, “maybe next time.” But there never was a next time.

Heeding my manager’s advice (I had nothing to lose, after all), I began investing time, energy, and effort into getting to know my colleagues—and not because I was pushing an agenda.

I asked my teammate Rebecca how she was spending the holiday weekend. I stopped by Dan’s cubicle and invited him to join me for a coffee break. I stopped walking past Mary’s desk in a big hurry in the morning and instead paused to say hello and ask who was pictured in the frame next to her computer.

And I listened with my full attention.

It took some time for them trust that I was being sincere. In fact, some of them even directly asked me what I needed or wanted, referencing my by now, long-forgotten project. Opting to be candid, I explained that I’d made a mistake when I first came on board: I’d not taken the time to get to know the most important part of my new company, the people. It took time to build relationships and form friendships.

But, you know what happened? Being genuinely interested in others and building relationships eased the stress of deadlines and the strain of long projects. Being a true people-person felt good!

I quickly learned that work relationships are instrumental in helping you succeed. People respond well to those they know and those who treat them right.

Once I realized this, three notable things happened:

  • I got picked for better projects
  • My ideas were heard (and very often approved)
  • I received additional support

When you have strong relationships with your colleagues, you’re far more likely to be respected. And when you’re respected, you can speak and expect people to listen to what you’re saying. Even if your co-workers don’t 100% agree with your ideas, they’re likely to take a chance and offer approval if they value you as a person and professional.

Having colleagues on your side means that if you make the infrequent last-minute request, ask for a favor, or even miss a deadline, you’re not going to be punished for it. You’ll be forgiven quickly and everyone will move on.

I’ve come a long way from that crash and burn, and now my days are spent guiding others to career success and fulfillment. The guiding principle on which my practice rests is that the more effort and genuine care you put into building strong work relationships, the more successful you’ll be.

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