How to Build – and Destroy – Great Working Relationships

So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ve been asked to write this blog post about relationships.

But not just any relationships. Working relationships.

Now, at least working relationships are easier to understand than personal relationships, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Both kinds of relationships involve effort. And influence. And trust.

Stop right there. Go back to that last word.


handshake trust

That’s a tough ingredient. You can’t simply turn it on. It doesn’t just appear overnight.

Trust is built. Brick by brick. Interaction by interaction. By every promise you fulfill and every outcome you successfully achieve.

In fact, there is a kind of formula to this process. Let me give it to you before we go too far down the rabbit hole.

At the most basic level, you must begin with successfully fulfilling your tasks. But don’t just fulfill tasks. Identify which tasks drive the greater results. Results that the organization or team needs. Be the person who creates a reputation for making the group better. Enlarge the impact of everyone else’s tasks. Don’t just “do your job.” That’s too individualistic. Too limited. We’re trying to build trust, remember?

And when you have established your credibility as someone who turns tasks into results, you will then be asked to be responsible for those results. You will have earned the kind of trust that will earn you the right to take a formal leadership role.

In order to successfully deliver results, you need to make sure that you are blending your people skills with your technical/task-fulfillment skills. In fact, I would go so far as to say that your technical skills become content for teaching others. Use the tasks that your team must complete as teaching opportunities. Don’t be the control-freak leader who must stick his hands into the pot for anything to get done. Pull your hands away from the pot. Allow others to be responsible. Allow others to fulfill the tasks.

This is why your people skills become so important. Leading with humility, communicating effectively, setting clear expectations, and delegating with accountability all become prime skills that you MUST master.

If you want to be trusted. If you want to be known as someone who successfully delivers results in an ongoing way.

Which is the third level of trust in working relationships. Becoming someone that is entrusted with delivering ongoing impacts.

You don’t just get an annual/quarterly target to achieve. You set the targets. You veto other people’s decisions. You set the budget and steward the resources. In support of a larger, longer term strategy.

This kind of trust is a whole new animal. You are now removed from the daily tasks, which means that you must have a team of leaders who can both deliver results AND ensure that the tasks are being fulfilled. Without turning the entire thing into a big checklist. At this level, people have to believe that you will trust them. That you have a greater plan that their task-fulfilling, result-chasing efforts fit within. That you will adjust the tasks and results based on the current reality, harnessing context instead of ignoring it.

Make sense?

Now, let’s talk about how to navigate this whole thing so that you can protect the trust you are working so hard to build. Down the rabbit hole we go…

When people feel pressure that the outcome they are responsible to deliver is about to fail, they often change the outcome they are supposed to be pursuing. Ongoing impact people become results chasers. Results people become task jockeys. And in the worst situations, senior leaders/ongoing impact people become task jockeys. Which can become horrible for everyone.

But here is the insidious part. That’s the right thing to do.

If your organization is struggling to achieve the ongoing impact, turn your attention to its ability to deliver one-time results. And if one-time results are being missed, turn your attention to the tasks that need to be achieved.

So what’s the difference between healthy versus unhealthy working relationships?


I can’t trust you if I think you are trying to control me. And you can’t trust me when you think I am trying to control you.

When you are navigating this thing in a healthy way, you’re trying to influence it. To release the right motivations and create the right level of follow-through. But when you are navigating this thing in an unhealthy way, you are trying to generate motivation. In other people. Through charismatic persuasion. Through fear. Through contests and threats. And other useless attempts.

I say useless because you CAN’T make other people motivated. That is their choice. But control freaks don’t understand that.

And the kind of conformity you get as a result from a controlling position is always short-lived. People go back to doing (or not doing) their tasks the old way. Becoming apathetic about the results. Ignoring the long-term strategy.

So, if you want to be a master of working relationships, keep your focus on influencing the right outcomes. Build trust by doing your part to support the delivery of the tasks, results, and ongoing impacts that the team needs to produce. Help other people produce. Use trust as a way to enlarge other people’s efforts. And if you need to, let go of control. You never had it to begin with.

I mua. Onward and upward.

Photo credit (owl): Marilyn Peddle