In my recent leadership 360 survey, I received feedback that I need to strengthen my relationships through trust, compassion, and empathy. (A dose of listening and openness to others would probably help as well.) It’s not that I lack these things, but they don’t seem to land high enough on my to-do list. Like many of us, my typical day is filled with tasks- getting a lot of stuff done well in a short amount of time is my specialty. The trap I keep falling into is that others don’t just measure me on how many things I accomplish, they also measure me on our relationship.

It would be easy for me to dismiss the feedback: I’m busy, “they” own it too, or that I’m getting paid to get stuff done. What I’m actually getting paid to do is to lead. And I can’t lead well if I don’t have healthy, trusting, authentic relationships.

There is decades of research supporting the idea that leaders live and die by the strength of their relationships- common sense and history show this to be true. So why is it so hard to do? Why do many leaders- myself included- have a difficult time establishing, strengthening, and maintaining our relationships with others?

Even with the clear connection between healthy relationships and organizational performance, we find it hard to do. There are a host of things that make relationships difficult: different values, styles, backgrounds, and goals, conflict, a lack of time, energy, and necessity, and the ongoing grind of our fast-moving, complex organizations. But, like everything in leadership, the biggest obstacle is us. We have to choose to work on our relationships, to invest in them, to overcome the very real obstacles that make them complicated.

If you too are struggling with balancing your tasks with relationships, here is a short list of baby steps you can take to find the sweet spot between the two:

  1. Come up with a people list (as opposed to a to-do list).
  2. Schedule time for relationships- put it on your calendar. It may feel awkward, but what gets scheduled gets done.
  3. Make a list of people you want and need to have a better relationship with. Pick the person at the top of the list and let them know.
  4. Spend time with others. Windshield time is great- so is coffee, lunch, and adult beverages (in moderation- getting hammered will only lead to trouble).
  5. Talk about more than work. Open up, be transparent, and most of all, be curious.
  6. Ask for help- this takes more courage than you think.
  7. Focus on others- in person if possible. Turn down that voice in your head murmuring about how much work you have to do.
  8. Turn off your distractions- screens are like kryptonite for relationships. Email, texts, and Angry Birds will wait for you.
  9. Take 100% responsibility for the relationship (Even though it’s not. It’s just too easy to foist our relationship responsibility on others).

And last but not least:

  1. Don’t be an unlikeable jerk (Never underestimate the power of being kind, honest, and respectful).



Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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