Sometimes it’s the simplest lessons that can have the biggest impact on your life.

Over the past five years I’ve learnt the value of trust and strong professional relationships and this lesson has had a positive effect on my working life, and my relationship with family and friends.

Five years ago I was leading a team of fifteen people. I was good at my job; my team met deadlines, achieved outcomes and enjoyed each other’s company – the perfect combination? I have learnt since leaving that vocation that our relationships were based on artificial harmony.

The first sign that demonstrated the lack of strength of relationships with people in my team, was that after leaving a team I had been a part of for nine years, it didn’t take long for contact to whittle away. There is only one team member I keep in touch with regularly and he actually left three years before I did.

What I didn’t realise at the time, is what happened to our team under pressure; how we behaved when we were stressed and busy. I know some of that unproductive behaviour stemmed from what we tolerated from each other when we weren’t under pressure, such as the guy who came late to every meeting, and the bloke who had all the best ideas in the world in the planning phase of the year, but all of us knew that he wouldn’t follow through with any of them. There was also a bit of talking behind people’s backs.

Common to all of these issues was the fact that we didn’t address them, we let them go. As the leader of the team,I let them go. We actually applauded the latecomer when he finally arrived to meetings and on more than one occasion, I said I’d take on that really good idea and make it happen rather than make my team member accountable for his ideas and suggest he follow them through. Because we let these behaviours go, the consequences were that we basically gave these behaviours a big tick, so it was no wonder that they became the norm in my team. And of course, under pressure, the consequences were much more obvious and also much harder to deal with.

This is what I mean by artificial harmony. We didn’t deal with these behaviours that didn’t help the team. We all knew they happened, and were very aware that they didn’t help, yet we didn’t address them – we played it safe with each other. I know that I avoided challenging my peers because I didn’t want to damage the relationships we had. I also thought it would take less time if I ‘fixed’ it myself. Of course in the end, it impacted our performance and productivity, and not surprisingly, it explains the relationships whittling away!

I’ve learnt two lessons to enhance genuine strong professional relationships. What I’d do differently if I went back to that same time five years later is:

1) I would take the time to find out more about the individuals in my team. What really makes them tick as a person? It isn’t enough to know what footy team they barrack for, their basic family and what they do on Saturdays. I’d find out what they really value, significant turning points in their life, who they admire and why, and what they are most proud of as some examples. I’ve learnt that the line between personal-professional relationships is blurry and that’s ok. If you think about the relationships with those closest to you, they developed in the early stages by sharing a bit of yourself didn’t they? By sharing personal information and digging a bit deeper than the ‘easy’ answers, relationships are strengthened, trust is built, and you can develop a genuine care about someone.

2) I would share things about my personal life. Hands up if you feel uncomfortable sharing things about your personal life? Mine would be one of the highest hands up 5 years ago! It can be quite uncomfortable to share some of your deepest and darkest secrets. But a team that is willing to take those risks together, a leader who is willing to appear vulnerable, is more likely to establish a safe environment when those conversations are welcomed and expected. Developing an understanding, more respect and empathy for each other are words often associated with an environment like this. What I’ve learnt is that the benefits to a professional relationship aren’t any different to those we care about personally. It might be a professional level of ‘care’, but a relationship based on care and trust will be more likely to be a productive one.

The other impact is that the environment is safer to be able to challenge some of the unproductive behaviour that often occurs. If I had my time again, I would have those conversations with the ‘latecomer’ and the ‘ideas man’. Imagine the impact on our performance as a team and our productivity!

I often hear the phrase “I care too much about them, how could I ever tell them that! It would ruin our friendship.” I probably thought it too in the past.

Once the work is done, and there’s no doubt it’s work and it does take time, the phrase more often turns into “I care too much about them…gee I have to tell them, don’t I?!”

Martine Harkin

Martine Harkin

Martine joined Leading Teams in 2008 after an 11 year teaching career. Martine is a Facilitator/Partner based in Melbourne.

Learn more about Martine.