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5 steps to successful work relationships

(MoneyWatch) Had an argument with my wife the other day. I said something I shouldn't have, she called me on it and it went downhill from there. Some therapists call what we had a "kitchen sink" fight: Both sides blow off steam that can build up in a relationship by throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix.

That's right, I'm human. Big surprise. The next day, I could only see things from her perspective, a complete 180 from the day before. We exchanged apologies, and so it goes for relationships where both parties have a strong, vested interest in getting along, like a long-term marriage.

It's pretty much the same thing in the business world. In my experience, you simply can't have a successful working relationship unless you're capable of and willing to put yourself in each other's shoes when the situation calls for it.

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That same concept goes far beyond conflict resolution. It's a powerful and necessary tool in every business and management process that matters, from negotiating with customers, your boss or a hiring manager to hammering out goals, plans and budgets between members of a management team.

Virtually every important aspect of business and organizational effectiveness includes two sides coming together to reach agreement. To put it bluntly, I can't imagine your career going anywhere unless you can learn to see the world through other people's eyes.

If you've got a knack for it, all your working relationships are smooth sailing and your career is like a rocket ship to the stars, great. If not, here's a five-step process for learning to put yourself in other people's shoes, improving your business relationships and organizational effectiveness, and facilitating your climb up the corporate ladder.

Look in the mirror. The first step in learning to improve your relationships is always the same: Look in the mirror. Do you have certain characteristics that might prove to be stumbling blocks or negative indicators? Are you stubborn or inflexible? Do you feel entitled? Do you have a chip on your shoulder? Are you always blaming others, never yourself?

Identify ALL your key working relationships. If I said, "Quick, off the top of your head, list your key working relationships," you'd list your boss and your employees. You might add some peers. But it goes much further than that. Chances are there are lots of others, both internally and externally, especially if you're in management. Think about it; list them all. Put an asterisk next to those you don't get along with.

Find out what motivates them. Negotiating with external customers or a hiring manager is one thing. You've got to somehow figure out what they're looking for or what's in it for them. With internal people, it doesn't have to be some big guessing game. You should have periodic one-on-one meetings with all your key stakeholders. Ask them flat-out what they need from you and what you can do better to serve them, especially those you asterisked. Use their answer as a starting point, "So, you're saying I should x, y and z. Makes sense, but how about ..." Try it -- it works.

Groom yourself. When I was an engineering manager, I realized I needed more experience and polish in direct business relationships and one-on-one negotiating. I transitioned into sales, then marketing and so on. As a marketing executive, I could always put myself in the salespeople's shoes. Likewise with product development. That's called grooming. It creates a well-rounded executive who gets where others are coming from. Companies committed to growing future leaders do that, but you can and should do it for yourself.

Get the big picture. Few employees take the time to learn and truly understand what their boss's goals are, how their management thinks and how their company operates. Once you embark on that journey to understand the big picture, you've taken the first step into a much bigger world, a world where you may someday become one of those you seek to understand. Those who "get it," get along with others and get the job done get promoted. Simple as that. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user woodleywonderworks

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