July 2011 | 

People Who Need People: Senior Executives’ Relationships Can Deepen Their Influence

People Who Need People

Recent research indicates that the more senior your position, the more you must rely on relationships to move your initiatives and your career forward. But many executives believe they can influence without them — witness the term many use to describe this social ability: “soft skills.” It’s that deprecating attitude, and the behaviors it engenders, that can sidetrack an executive whose job performance is otherwise commendable.

“To develop solid, successful relationships, you need to take responsibility for doing so,” notes Janet Greco, co-academic director of the Wharton Executive Education program Building Relationships That Work. “Your goal is to use every interaction to enhance your relationships with others, or at the very least to break even.”

Greco continues, “Being responsible means it’s your job to translate your core message into terms that the person you’re communicating with can recognize, understand, and value. Know that there are different ways to get the same message across, and choose a method that will resonate. You can pick up cues about both their values and preferred style of communication from the words they choose, their behavior, and what they prioritize.

“In Building Relationships That Work, we use the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument, which was designed to give you a glimpse into the operating system of your brain and what kind of thinking and perceiving you prefer. There are four styles, and, while everyone does all four, just as with our two hands, we tend to prefer one or two more than others. The instrument helps you first to understand your own style and then to identify those of others.”

Understanding someone else’s “grain of wood,” as well as your own, are the first steps in taking full responsibility for building and maintaining your relationships, says Greco. “If you’re talking to someone in finance, and he or she prefers expressions in terms of an objective, measurable reality, you want to offer your message in terms of numbers and data, formulas and comparables. You wouldn’t start with a philosophical argument, or a discussion about people’s feelings or the process. To be heard, address it in a way that speaks to his preferences.”

The more models you have for interacting and communicating, the more lenses you can apply understanding how others think and perceive value in given situations, the more likely you are to enable others to find value in relating to you. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, Greco suggests taking a step back, looking at what you say and do from different perspectives, such as a cultural, technical, or political perspective. Applying various approaches helps you to objectify and evaluate your own behavior. “If one way of thinking or behaving isn’t working for a given relationship,” says Greco, “you can take responsibility and change it. Many more executives could consider adapting their approach to others’ as a high-leverage option. Building relationships, augmenting influence beyond your title, is worth the work — and responsibility.”

Greco shares five specific relationship game-changers:

  • Recognize your own biases and assumptions. If you’re unable or unwilling to observe and examine your own thoughts and behaviors, you’ll think the behavior or attitude you currently exhibit is the only one open to you.
  • Imagine reality as perceived by someone else. Greco notes, “If I asked, ‘What would your grandmother say about this?’ most people would come up with an answer instantly. But in a professional setting, that kind of imagination rarely gets used. If you’re thinking about others in this way, you’re much better able to form relationships and communicate effectively."
  • Be your own stage manager. Be aware of your behavior, of how you’re being received, and coach yourself at the same time. Imagine having a broadcaster’s earpiece in your ear to hear the stage manager saying, “slow down” or “explain that again.”
  • Provide others a simultaneous translation. In addition to presenting your message, explain what you’re doing and why. When you provide the reason behind the message, you’re much more likely to be understood.
  • Don’t demonize. You handicap yourself by ascribing mistakes to others’ immutable character flaws. Labeling someone as inherently incompetent or lazy leaves you with very few options. If instead the mistake is attributed to a miscommunication or momentary lack of attention, there are more possibilities for leaders to build a relationship, be a better manager, or help someone change.

But it’s not just about learning cognitively what to do, Greco stresses. Changing life-long habits, thoughts, and behaviors takes practice. Before Building Relationships That Work begins, participants are asked to share a relationship situation they would like to improve. They then work through these actual circumstances in small groups (each group has no competitors and no people from the same organization), using the tools they learned in the program. “You will leave with more approaches to real situations — approaches that won’t be simply stored academic knowledge. Rehearsing by applying what you learn in the safe setting of the workshop means you’ll be prepared for using your new practices when you’re back in the workplace.”