3 Barriers to Building Relationships at Work

By: Susan Finerty

In first grade, my whole world revolved around my neighbor and best friend, Jill. Both tomboys living in the country, we spent hours outside building forts, hunting frogs, and playing epic games of hide-and-seek in the woods around our houses. She was my partner in crime. We’re still friends—with a little help from Facebook.

Fast forward to grown-up life. Like anyone, sometimes it seems like there is an endless number of people we need to “partner with” to get things done. In our highly interdependent organizations, few things we do are purely independent—nearly everything we do has an “other person” component.

The need is clear, but the process can be challenging. Why? Because they are vastly different than the other relationships we form in our lives. They are not like first-grade friends at all, and it has less to do with maturing and more to do with the nature of the relationships themselves.

Traditional relationships—the relationships we are used to building—are dependent on three things. I refer to this as a three-legged stool.

The three-legged stool

At work, often all three legs of that stool are missing. Consider the first foundation of relationships: proximity. Most relationships we build are with people we are physically near: neighbors, like Jill and me; classmates; members of the same team or club. They are people we “run into.” In our geographically diverse and technology separated world, we just don’t “run into” people anymore. The people we need to partner with are often in a different building, on a different campus, in another state, or on another continent.

The second element of most relationships is personal chemistry. We build relationships with people we like and who are like us. Again, at work, this is often missing. We work with all sorts of people with whom we may have nothing in common with and with whom we don’t connect. Sometimes we think that is a reason not to build a partnership. Nothing is further from the truth. The work brings us together with this person, not chemistry, and expecting this can lead us to miss key partnerships that can bring teams together, get a project back on track, or move an initiative forward.

The final leg of the stool is time. We build many of our most significant relationships over long periods of time—my best friend since first grade, your fraternity brother, a parent you met 17 years ago when your kids were in grade school. But in our organizations, we don’t have the gift of time. We can’t always build trust over time. Instead of taking time to earn trust, we have to jump in and assume trust.

The lesson in all of this is this: you must approach work partnerships deliberately and purposefully. They take effort. They do not grow organically, through fresh air, sunshine and hide-and-seek.

Susan Finerty is an adjunct faculty at the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional & Executive Development. Her courses include How to Influence Without Direct Authority, Leadership Beyond Management, and Transition to Executive Management.

About the Instructor: Susan Finerty

Susan Finerty

Susan has experience in organizational development working with large multinational companies. Her focus is matrix organizations and how to navigate and influence cross-functionally in these organizations. Prior to joining the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty, Susan worked for Baxter and two pharmaceutical companies. She also held an adjunct faculty role at Northwestern University teaching a leadership and change course as part of a master’s in medical informatics, as well as a leadership and strategy course. Susan is the author of Master the Matrix: 7 Essentials for Getting Things Done in Complex Organizations and The Cross Functional Influence Playbook. She has a B.A. from Central Michigan University and an M.A. from Indiana University.