Leaders Love Relationships

Institutional inertia is a real thing. Whether you’re in the military or civilian world, organizations are imbued with all of the history, the hurt, and the hurdles they have acquired since their inception. This can be a daunting reality to contend with as a new hire.

There are a number of ways to be a new person in an organization. One of the benefits of military service is that, every 24-36 months, we have the opportunity to test our “onboarding” personas and collect lessons about what works and what doesn’t.

After dozens of job changes in the past two decades, I have learned that I am a “sit back and listen” kind of “new person.” This doesn’t always work well in every organization, but it allows me an opportunity to take stock of what I’m walking into, what is expected of me, and what my real challenges will be in a new role.

And in all that time, in all those job changes, here is what I have learned:

The leaders who do well are the leaders who love relationships.

I suppose we should pause for a moment and discuss what “doing well” as a leader means. On this site and whenever I write, I am not giving advice to people who simply want to maximize their own evaluations or fitness reports. I am not speaking to people who simply want to climb whatever ladder to personal success if before them. For me, “doing well” as a leader means leading a team to accomplish outsized goals. “Doing well” means making an impact that is personal, professional, and profound.

So why are we talking about institutional inertia and relationships? Because they are at the core of how we make an impact in any career field. Even the President of the United States needs to manage relationships to make an impact during her time in office.

We’ve all been on teams where it is well known that “this person/office/organization does not work with us.” And everybody has an excuse for why the relationship is the way it is. This can sound like:

“Headquarters requires us to work with this team and send a weekly update on our progress, but they are impossible to work with and give us shoddy work.”

“That project leader is an asshole and treats people outside of his team like garbage.”

“It is nearly impossible for us to get the truth from this other team, so we just go around them and cut them out of key meetings.”

Sometimes, our organizations have rivalries that cannot be managed away, such as with a market competitor.

But far too often, we accept toxic relationships when two teams are working towards the same goal. It could be a military mission, a political platform, or a round of seed funding. Institutional inertia can deliver us a poor relationship between two positions in different organizations, poisoning both teams.

In none of the organizations I have belonged to were we able to do well while accepting toxic relationships. It just does not work – or if it does, it does not work for long. The best leaders I have ever seen recognize the work they have to do while prioritizing relationship-building with those external entities that have plagued their team for so long.

Here are five ways that leaders can right the ship on toxic relationships – and learn to love them:

  1. Adopt a learning mindset. Institutional inertia forces us to accept a one-sided telling of a situation; that can be a difficult thing to break, especially if we identify closely with the organization we are a part of (i.e. I’m a fighter pilot and all other non-fighter pilots are wrong; I am an AI expert and all other non-AI experts are wrong, etc.). The keys to manging even the worst of relationships are humility and curiosity. Be the first mover and ask the other leader or team for their perspective. What do they care about? How do they see the relationship? How can you improve in their eyes? Make sure you actually listen to what they have to say and ask follow-up questions.
  2. Recognize. Sometimes, the other side of a toxic relationship just doesn’t feel seen by us. One of the best tools to correct this is just to say thanks or give credit to them. This can be both a private and public expression, but it must be authentic and meaningful.
  3. Be deliberately honest. Once you have established rapport and listened to the other side, you need to assert your view of the situation, too. Be kind, but be honest, and allow the other team to be defensive if that’s their first reaction. Remember: if the view you are sharing is different than your team’s view, you need to follow-up internally and level-set with your own team on the progress you’re making with the other side and do a bit of internal persuasion, too.
  4. Set shared goals. Once you’ve laid your cards on the table, set a few short-, medium-, and long-term goals together with the other team. This could be as simple as “receive updates regularly on Thursdays” or as complex as multi-faceted data sharing agreements. Couch these goals in the understanding you have achieved in the first few steps – whether that’s the understanding that you both need to satisfy the same boss in higher headquarters or meet the same quarterly revenue goals.
  5. Don’t make it about you. I cannot stress this enough – if you are only working relationships to benefit you and your bottom line, you will fail. Maybe not right away, but people will see right through your inauthenticity. Don’t be that guy.

Relationship management is my favorite part of being in a new organization or team. It can be so difficult to feel like you’re contributing while you’re trying to learn a new organization’s rules, culture, and knowledge base. One of the easiest and most impactful things we can do from the outset is build or repair relationships for our teams.

As leaders at any level, we should never accept toxic relationships as inevitable or “just the way it is.” While this post has dealt with mostly external-to-the-team relationships, we should accept toxic relationships within our team even less! Dig deeper, put in the time, and turn your hurdles into helpers. Leaders who learn to love relationships are the most effective leaders in any organization.


Leave a Reply