Every year I become a better manager. As time goes I get better and better (just like a great bottle of wine). As I reflect on my growth, one of the more shocking lessons was learning to how it important it was to build relationships with my peers.
In big companies, your performance is often calibrated and ranked against people at the same level in your organization (who are typically your peers). Typically your performance rating, raise, and bonus depends on how well you and your team performed against these counterparts. Working in that kind of environment helped cultivate the feeling that my peers were my competition, not my teammates, and until a couple of years ago I let my interactions with them show that feeling.
Once I moved into management, I learned to create positive relationships and interactions with the members of my team. I did a good job deferring praise to them and never flinched if they got the glory for my ideas or were more successful because of my feedback and influence. It was easy to operate this way because if they looked good I looked good; our goals aligned.
But I still didn’t have the same deference to my peers. I would be resentful if my boss gave them or their team credit for something that was really my idea or my team’s work. I still felt the need to prove that I was better than my peers, even when doing so didn’t help the company or my team move forward. I am actually embarrassed to admit this revelation since I often spout the importance of relationships.
Over the years, thankfully, my view of my peers has changed drastically. I realized (perhaps later than most) that by making other people successful, my own hard work and success would show in the long-term. I didn’t need to vie for credit at every turn; instead, if I helped other people be successful (and let them bask in the glory of that success), then it would make me successful too.
And I learned (five years down the road) that those peer relationships that I worked to stop destroying and start developing would become the most beneficial for me in improving my network and career opportunities.
I wish I had learned this lesson much earlier than I did. It took a lot of maturing, growing up, and getting to the point in my career where I knew I was great at what I do and that my work could stand on its own. I reached a point when I didn’t need my manager to pat me on the back anymore. Now I can focus all my energy on helping everyone – both inside and outside of my company; both on my team, laterally, and up in the organization.
Because in life, like in a startup, it’s really about moving your business forward – it doesn’t matter who is actually doing the work to make it happen.
Why are we so competitive with our peers?
A lot of us who work and lead in environments like major corporations and fast-moving startups are in those roles because we are smart, driven, and have valuable skills to leverage. But those qualities that make us so desirable are often also our downfall in relationships with our peers.
Most of us didn’t reach our current place overnight. Most of us grew up being hard-workers in school, and many of us geeky introverts missed the curriculum on relationship-building skills. Instead, over-achieving students grow up being praised for being the smartest person in the room, with little priority given to teaching them to share their knowledge and skills with their classmates. The individual nature of success on quizzes, tests, and homework reinforces the idea that success means working all on your own to get the best grade in class, and competition builds between the brightest kids to get the biggest share of the teacher’s praise and attention.
Does this sound familiar? In too many work environments, this kind of dynamic persists way beyond the classroom. People are not motivated because they want to help drive the company forward, but because they want to be noticed and appreciated for their work driving the company forward (whether or not their work really contributed much).
Think about your feelings about your work, your company, and your team. Do you feel competitive towards people who you know are supposed to be on your side? Do you seek opportunities to promote your own work, take credit for ideas, or even talk down another peer’s contributions? You may not even be fully aware that you’re doing it; but if you can acknowledge your feelings and behavior, you can take steps to improve your relationships and your own standing with your peers.
How to improve relationships with your peers
This can be a huge challenge for people who have spent their lives striving to be number one, all the time. It requires changing not only in how to treat people, but in how you think about other people and yourself as well.
However, if you can implement a few priorities in your daily working life, you can begin to adjust your priorities and start reaping the long-term benefits of being a collaborator instead of a competitor.
Give up control.
Try not handling one aspect of your job all by yourself. Being a good manager is all about delegating, even when you’re working with other managers. Find ways to let other people help you, and let them know how much you appreciate their help. Let them impress you with what they can do.
Start understanding them.
Many disagreements arise because both people want the other person to come around to their point of view. Try being the person who comes around once in a while. Ask yourself questions to build understanding, like: what drives this person’s perspective? What are their motivations and goals? What is their favored method of communication? What are their non-negotiables?
Stay focused on what this person really needs from you, and why. If you can understand your peers, you can reach agreements with them faster. You’ll know how to reach them and what makes them take action (or not), so you both get what you want.
Think as “us” not “me”.
It can be hard to see a peer succeed, especially when it feels like it makes you look inadequate compared to them. But if you’re doing your best work (and you know when you are) then having strong teammates who shine is a good thing. Remember, you’re part of a company, so the stronger everyone in the organization is, the better it is for all of you. Silence that voice that wants other people to fail so you can succeed.
Recognize good work.
Praise someone – sincerely, appropriately – when they’ve done something successfully. Whether this means publicly noting all their hard work at your next executive meeting, or just dropping by their desk to thank them for helping you perfect your presentation, you’ll build trust and consideration from your peers with simple recognition.
None of us hear “thank you” enough at work, so be the person who says “thank you”. You’ll be amazed at how it can change the tone of a conversation or even a relationship. In fact, try paying your boss a genuine compliment; perhaps something you learned from them or that impressed you. It seems like higher up you go the fewer accolades you receive.
Avoid being defensive.
This is the flip side of the previous tip. When a peer criticizes your work or disagrees with you, don’t fight fire with fire. Ask questions and be receptive to feedback. Taking people’s opinions seriously also builds trust – and builds better managers too.
Is a peer purposely making it harder for you to do your job? Instead of trying to stay out of their way, make a point to get to know them (and get them to know you too). It’s harder to push someone out who’s making an effort to get in.
Seeing your peers outside of work humanizes them. Get out of the competitor mindset by inviting everyone out to happy hour or meeting up on the weekend for a hike. Do something not work-related and engage with these people on a more personal level; you might have a new perspective on their ideas come Monday.
Focus on real relationships, not political ones.
You can tell when someone chats you up because they want something from you or think you can help them get published, promoted, or publicized. And it doesn’t feel very good to be used. So remember that before you speak with people in your peer group.
Even if a person does have the capacity to massively improve your career, you need to prioritize being authentic with them – not self-promotional – to build a personal connection. Look for existing links you have with your peers to establish more meaningful initial contacts, then (and this is important!) nurture those relationships by coming back to them regularly. Check out this article for tons of great advice on maintaining and leveraging authentic relationships.
Relationships that you treat this way will last the test of time, and are the ones that will surprise you by paying off again and again throughout your career.
Be active about sharing.
Don’t just “take” in your relationships with other managers; prioritize “giving“ instead. Build up trust and favor by being proactive about giving (support, ideas, whatever is needed) before you need something back from someone. The more you practice thinking of ways you can be helpful to your peers, the easier it will become – and the more they’ll be thinking of ways they can return the favor.
This is especially helpful if many of your peers are also competitive towards you. Most people will respond positively to your active efforts to make their lives easier, especially when your assistance comes without strings attached. You can help build a culture of collaboration.
See your peers as your most powerful advocates.
Just because someone is at the same career level as you doesn’t mean they can’t have a huge impact on your future success. I used to focus all of my networking energy on people I thought were high-powered and influential, assuming they could have the biggest overall impact on my future.
But who ended up becoming the network I relied upon for opportunities, support, and big ideas? It was the people I befriended who were in the same position as I was when we were all just figuring it out.
You never know who around you has the potential to completely change your life. Don’t write off your peers for their perceived lack of influence or power; engage them, and combine forces as you all get better at what you do.
Take the long view.
If you don’t get credit for this one project you oversaw because your boss assumed one of your peers handled it – is it the end of the world? Probably not. Make your primary focus doing the things that actually make a good manager: building a strong team, doing work that moves the company forward, and creating relationships that are beneficial for your team and your company.
One project doesn’t matter; being seen as a visionary, an influencer, and a strong collaborator does. When you do your job, think about yourself in terms of your role, not yourself. How would a good manager handle this? What response is most helpful for my team, not me? How can I create an environment in which those around me thrive?
If you take this perspective, your day-to-day job will be better, and you’ll be (and be seen as) a better manager for it. Think long-term about what it really means to be successful. Don’t insist on credit now, and focus on building a career and legacy that will speak for themselves.
There are lots of great tips out there for improving relationships with your peers and being less competitive with people who can help you. Here’s one great article to get you started!
And if you have other tips and ideas go ahead and leave them in the comments 🙂