Humans are social creatures. From the early cave-dwelling days, living and working together has been key to our survival. Though we’ve evolved since then to living in houses and buying our food from the supermarket, not much has changed from a social point of view. If you want to get ahead in the working world and have a career you actually enjoy, knowing how to maintain professional relationships is a necessary component.
We’ll reveal which relationships are the most important ones to your career and explain how to nurture them in a way that benefits not just you, but the people within your network as well.
The importance of professional relationships
For starters, productive relationships in the workplace serve a practical purpose: getting work done.
Most jobs require collaboration of some sort, and some jobs completely depend on it. It’s hard to work together when you have a negative relationship with someone, so building positive working relationships will make your job a lot easier.
Referrals are hands-down the most effective channel for landing a new job. The stronger your professional network, the more access you’ll have to influential people and desirable positions that can advance your career.
Exposure to new ideas
It’s a common saying that we’re the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Forging connections with forward-thinking individuals helps level up your own knowledge, gaining exposure to new and creative ways of doing things.
COVID-19 is a perfect example of this. Businesses that shared ideas and sought out innovative ways to adapt were more likely to stay afloat than those who remained stuck in their same circles trying to pursue business as usual.
Robust professional relationships are good for business. If you’re a small business, for example, you can reach new customers by cross-promoting with other shops that offer a product or service that complements yours.
We’re happier when we have meaningful bonds with other people. Professional relationships can make work more enjoyable, interesting, and fulfilling, which means you’ll be more engaged with your career on the whole.
Types of professional relationships to focus on
The relationship you have with your boss has an outsized impact on how satisfied you are at work. Your manager influences everything from the assignments you receive to whether you’re able to take time off work when you need to.
They’re someone you want to have in your corner when you’re ready to pursue a promotion and can serve as a positive reference should you ever decide to look for a job elsewhere.
If you’re a manager, employee relationships characterized by mutual respect and trust will help you maximize productivity and retain top talent. It pays to invest in nurturing your team so they’re equally invested in doing a good job for you.
No one wants strife at work. Getting along with your coworkers is essential to having a more seamless work experience. You’ll experience less stress and get more done when you’re all “on the same team” versus working against one another.
This includes people at other companies in the same industry as well as people in diverse fields who are in the same stage of their career as you, like connections from a young professionals’ organization.
Mentors are a valuable resource for career coaching and professional advice. They can help you get better at your current job and strategize to reach the job you want to have next.
Ways to build and maintain professional relationships
1. Follow the golden rule
The easiest way to build solid work relationships is simply to treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Act with integrity, communicate respectfully, offer assistance when someone needs it and give others grace when it’s necessary.
How you act determines your reputation, which influences the quality of your relationships and the opportunities you receive over the entire life span of your career.
2. Seek out opportunities to help
Don’t be that person who only reaches out to others when they need a favor. Build lasting connections by proactively looking for ways to help others in your network.
If you’re in a more senior position, there are lots of ways you can do this: serving as a mentor, providing leadership opportunities, and helping train the next generation of workers, to name a few. But you can also help others even when you’re in the early stages of your career, like by giving someone a heads up about a new position in your department or serving as a positive reference to someone who’d be great for an open job.
Seeking out ways to help others without looking for anything in return not only builds trust, but increases the likelihood that person will be enthusiastic to help you if the opportunity arises.
3. Find synergy
Building and maintaining professional relationships sounds good and all, but the truth is you’re not going to like everyone you come into contact with in your career. Some people are like oil and water. One way to develop an effective working relationship with someone you have no interest in being friends with is to look for synergy–ways you both can “win” by combining forces.
If it’s a coworker with an aggressive demeanor, focus on the shared goals you’re trying to accomplish. If it’s a senior colleague you’re always butting heads with, ask if there are any projects you can take off their plate to lighten their workload while gaining hands-on experience with more advanced work.
4. Be strategic
It’s easy to think about who you know when you’re getting ready to job search or ask for a raise, but this isn’t an effective approach. Rather than thinking of professional relationships from a transactional perspective–i.e. what’s in it for me?–adopt an ‘always be networking’ mentality.
Schedule time on the calendar to catch up with a colleague from a former job. Send a Slack message to a coworker to ask how their vacation was. Follow up on that new connection you made at a coffee shop. This way, the strong connections are already there when you need them instead of having to go to people only when you’re in need of a favor.
5. Step outside your comfort zone
Some people are natural-born networkers. Most of us are not. If you want an above-average network, you have to go beyond the bare minimum of merely showing up to work and doing your job.
You’ll likely need to put yourself out there in ways that might stretch your comfort, like joining a professional organization, attending networking events and reaching out to approach a mentor.
6. Avoid gossip
Swapping office gossip can feel like a way to build a more intimate connection with coworkers (not to mention that it can be such a fun distraction from work!). However, gossiping more than very occasionally will come back to bite you–it’s only a matter of time.
For example, you might think your reputation as the office busybody is harmless, but how can management trust you with a leadership position if you can’t keep your mouth shut about sensitive matters?
Some level of chatter about workplace politics and office interactions is unavoidable, but you should steer clear of gossip whenever you can. If you absolutely must engage, do it face to face and never via email, text or messaging app (you didn’t hear this advice from us).
7. Keep it professional
It’s a common misconception that forging a professional relationship means becoming real-world BFFs. In reality, too much overlap between your work life and your personal life can become problematic, especially if you’re in a managerial role.
This means you want to be mindful to maintain healthy boundaries, like keeping your Instagram profile set to private, and manage your expectations, like understanding the fine line between friends and friendly work acquaintances. There’s a place for both, and a healthy amount of people in the second group is a good thing.
By actively building strong professional relationships on a consistent basis, you’ll have the connections in place to help you take the next step in your career when the right opportunity comes your way.