How to Create and Nurture Professional Relationships

In order to create professional relationships, it starts with developing people's connections. Connections are something people crave because they create a sense of belonging. Much is written about developing employee engagement based on positive employee relations, but there is another type of relationship of equal importance – the professional relationship. This type of relationship focuses on developing a network of colleagues and industry connections that support as needed, foster career-building, make work more productive and promote inclusiveness. Professional relationships are built on trust, require certain skills and a high level of self-awareness and produce mutual value or social reciprocity. 

Defining the Difference in Professional Relationships 

Professional relationships are different from transactional relationships and mutually dependent employee-employee and employee-employer relationships. Professional relationships are what Darin Rowell in the Harvard Business Review calls transformational relationships. They are transformational because they are "characterized by the level of influence, mutuality, and vulnerability that is allowed and nurtured." When you create professional relationships, you are open to new perspectives, viewpoints, and opinions and realize your personal beliefs could be impacted.  

Rowell describes an example of professional relationships. An executive was asked to lead a major change initiative and knew she had to build professional relationships in the organization to realize success. Her first step was thinking through the mutual value found in such a relationship and the traits she had to adopt to successfully interact with colleagues. These three traits were: 

  • Shared relevance or a common vision 
  • An understanding of the type of relationships she needed to develop 
  • A commitment to pursuing and nurturing the relationships even when times get tough  

Transactional and mutually dependent employee-employer relationships typified in a workforce are important to productivity. Still, the executive realized that expending efforts to build professional relationships was necessary for the organization's initiative success. The executive also understood that thriving as a leader over the long term would require sustaining professional relationships through persistence and commitment.   

In another example of a professional relationship in action, Rowell discusses how a manager disagreed with a peer in another division. They were very upset, and both had to wait 24 hours before re-engaging. The manager valued the relationship more than the disagreement and believed the value of a professional relationship must be remembered through good times and times of conflict. Sometimes one person invests more than the other, or there may be current or anticipated conflict. Still, the value of the long-term professional relationship is realized by always assuming positive intent.

Benefits of Developing and Maintaining Professional Relationships 

What are the benefits of creating workplace/professional relationships? When you create professional relationships, several benefits are realized. The basic characteristics of strong professional relationships are respect, trust, inclusion, self-awareness, and open and honest communication. On the foundation of these characteristics flow the benefits, some of which are the following.

  • Increased job satisfaction through relationships with colleagues 
  • Increased potential for identification of career opportunities 
  • Enhanced possibility for career advancement 
  • Improved leadership and workforce productivity through greater access to know-how, expertise, information, new perspectives, etc. 
  • Ability to source talent through contacts 
  • Creation of a support network 
  • Creation of a more connected workplace 
  • Improved lines of communication throughout the organization 
  • Increased positivity in the leader experience  
  • More effective as a manager or supervisor 
  • Better prepared to develop positive employee-employer relationships and improve the employee experience for the leader's team members 
  • Gains influence in the organization 
  • Leaders become role models for their staff members 

Creating Relationships = Networking

Creating professional relationships is networking. The relationships are internal and external and focus on the future and the operational present. When done right, the process is strategic because the planned connections help leaders identify future challenges, priorities, and opportunities as much as it delivers the other mentioned benefits.  

Supervisors, managers, and senior-level professionals often believe the network already developed is adequate, but expanding professional relationships should be an ongoing process that reflects the dynamic business environment that exists today. You can build relationships with other people who are peers, higher-ups, and external people in related fields.   

How to Create Professional Relationships

Developing professional relationships today is more complex because many people work remotely. But it's important to include inhouse and remote connections when building professional relationships. Following are some of the ways to build a professional network.  

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Identify the Professional Relationships to Create 

Creating professional relationships is a strategic effort in that you are identifying colleagues who will deliver the greatest value. It is not a random process. You can use relationship mapping to identify the strategic professional relationships that deliver the most value. The principle of social reciprocity is a psychological term for a mutually beneficial exchange. In a successful and productive professional relationship, both sides benefit. You want to identify the professionals who will boost your career through interactions, provide new perspectives concerning operations or initiatives, or deliver some other value like improved decision-making. Identifying your needs is the first step.  

Practice Open Communication 

Communication is crucial in any relationship. Open communication is key to strong relationships because it gives people a chance to share opinions, present ideas, and even express complaints without fear of repercussions. You have to be willing to share information, ask, and give feedback with an open mind to create professional relationships with value. This is one element of trust-building, and you contribute to a culture of transparency, positive relations, and innovation while building professional relationships.   

Use Many Communication Channels 

Using a variety of communication channels. Meet face-to-face whenever possible because there is no equal substitute for purposes of relationship building. You want to spend time with others by visiting colleagues when possible. After face-to-face communication, the next best form is the video call. After that, there are phone calls and various digital communication tools, including email, chat, text, and direct messaging. Create communication opportunities like open Zoom rooms where people can connect anytime. With so many people working remotely, developing the skills needed to effectively use digital communication is important.   

create and nurture relationships

Practice Diversity of Thought 

An important skill to apply when you create professional relationships is assessing your biases and perspectives. Keeping an open mind is important because honest conversations end when one person is judgmental. The mind is closed to new perspectives and opinions, and a trusting relationship is impossible to develop. Creating professional relationships can play an important role in promoting the inclusion of diverse perspectives, which in turn promotes innovation. When determining who to connect with, form high-value relationships with diverse colleagues.   

Take the Lead in Creating Professional Relationships

It takes a certain amount of assertiveness to develop new relationships. Someone must be willing to reach out first, so take advantage of every opportunity to engage with colleagues. There are a variety of approaches. 

  • Ask for an introductory meeting.  
  • Offer something of value to the person, whether it is assistance on a project, resources you have cultivated over time, etc. 
  • Ask a colleague for their perspective, opinion, or input on a project or problem you are experiencing. 
  • Share information, like a report you prepared or research conducted. 
  • Ask to attend meetings that are not directly related to your department.  

It should also be added that you need to consider the whole person. Each person has a personal identity and a work identity. Expressing an interest in the whole person and sharing yourself holistically also can deepen professional relationships.  

Though you are developing relationships with people who are mostly leaders already, work isn't the only thing of importance in their lives. A common suggestion is to begin a new relationship by asking about things like charity work, family, and interests. This sends a message that you are not self-serving and have a sincere interest in the person.  

maintain professional relationships

Be an Active Listener 

Many times, people think they are listening. In reality, they think about their plans, ideas, perspectives, opinions, or goals. They aren't listening to what the other person is saying. Possible responses in any exchange include reflecting, asking for more information, deflecting in which a discussion is shifted to another topic, and advising. The first two responses – reflecting and asking for more information - are helpful, while the last two – deflecting and advising based on personal biases - are not.   

Active listening means approaching the conversation with the right attitude and hearing what the person is saying, not what you think they should be saying. You reflect on the information with an open mind, ask for more information, and pivot when it makes sense. Active listening also means keeping body language positive and encouraging sharing. This is one of the best ways to cultivate a positive professional relationship.   

Follow Through on Commitments 

After you create professional relationships, they need nurturing. Being friendly and interested in another person and their work is not enough. You build trust through consistent effort, following through on commitments, and being truthful. Truthfulness includes admitting weaknesses as much as touting strengths. When trust exists, your opinions have more value, and colleagues will seek you out as much as you seek them. Following through on commitments also makes it clear that you value the relationship.

Learn the Other Person's Communication and Work Style  

Solidifying the professional relationship is only possible when you understand the other person's communication and work style. How does the person like communicating – face-to-face, via email, video call, etc. Work styles can vary considerably. For example, some people are organized and structured, while others are dynamic and fast-paced. The relationship is likely to falter if you try to push a thoughtful, methodical person with a rapid dynamic work approach.   

Keep in Contact 

Hold regular conversations and make regular contact with your colleagues. Though this is obvious, it's easy to get sidetracked due to workloads and the frequent leadership challenges to address. However, remember that well-chosen professional relationships can provide new perspectives and ideas that may help streamline work or overcome those challenges. Keeping in contact not only nurtures the professional relationship. It keeps the exchange of ideas and information flowing.  

What Skills are Needed? 

Dr. Douglas Ready from the MIT Sloan School of Management believes, "Mastering personal relationships that build trust and create a collaborative work environment is central to leadership effectiveness in the digital economy. This skill set distinguishes great leaders from merely good ones, based on my interviews with C-suite executives in companies around the world." Leaders need technical skills and relationship skills that include relationship building in the workforce and professional relationship development.  

Emotional Intelligence Needed to Create Professional Relationships

In the article How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill author Andrea Ovans explains the origins of the principle of emotional intelligence and how it was connected to leadership. John Mayer of UNH first defined emotional intelligence in 1990 as the "ability to accurately perceive your own and others' emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships, and to manage your own and others' emotions." Daniel Goleman applied it to leadership in 1998, writing, "My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won't make a great leader."   

Goleman then introduced five emotional intelligence traits, all of which are traits needed to create professional relationships.  

  • Self-awareness 
  • Self-regulation 
  • Motivation as a passion for work that goes beyond money and status 
  • Empathy for others 
  • Social skills that include proficiency in managing relationships and building networks  

Empathy – Though all of the emotional intelligence traits are important to relationship building, the soft skill of empathy is singled out. It is central to developing positive relationships, appreciating another person's point of view, recognizing a person's struggles, and better understanding someone else's situation. The work environment is constantly changing today, and all organizational leaders are balancing a variety of crises. Leaders are as subject to stress, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion as their team members. Empathy is considered one of the most important leadership skills for relationship building. Empathetic leaders are more inclusive and value people holistically. 

Communication – Communication skills include active listening and using digital communication systems and tools. Communicating goals and perspectives in a way that supports collaboration is crucial. Being able to communicate across diverse platforms is necessary to success today. However, the skills necessary for maintaining professional relationships include communication strategy development and execution because this is intentional relationship building. 

Mindful listening – Mindful listening is listening to someone without criticism, judgment, refuting, discounting, or interruption and giving someone full attention. You actively listen to what someone is saying with curiosity, an open mind, and emotional intelligence.   

Positivity – Respond to feedback with positivity, using the feedback as an opportunity to address specific issues. Even when conflict exists, as the example of a professional relationship given earlier discusses, you should rely on the reciprocity principle. If you want someone to value the relationship and maintain a productive relationship, being approachable and friendly is much more likely to elicit the same response.  

Finding common goals – A strong professional relationship has a clear purpose and common goals, and a willingness to pursue the goals even when there are challenges to overcome. Common goals help professionals remain intentional as they work together and hold each other accountable.   

Collaborative skills – You need strong collaborative skills to work with professionals across departments, divisions, or in the industry. The ability to collaborate creates a sense of unity or common purpose and supports transparency which is critical to trust-building. Collaboration skills enable you to freely voice your perspective, opinions, and ideas.   

Networking skills – To create professional relationships, you also need networking skills. In many ways, these skills embrace all the other skills, like a willingness to ask for constructive feedback, to listen, and to have empathy and positivity. Networking skills also include communication, social skills, and attitude.  

Creating Professional Relationships is a Leadership Skill 

Building professional relationships requires a commitment to maintaining them also by using the same skills and approaches discussed. Developing professional relationships is a skill in and of itself and should be a component of any leadership development plan. Some leaders are comfortable developing employee relationships but hesitant to reach outside their area of control. Learning how to create professional relationships internally and externally is a rewarding experience that can bring numerous benefits personally and for the workforce and organization.  

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