Modern companies’ real value lies in the combined knowledge of their employees. That means nurturing employee relationships directly influences how knowledge is shared and utilized. However, healthy relationships, especially between supervisors and direct reports, are virtually impossible to develop without mutual trust, respect, and understanding.
Let’s take a look at how mutual trust, empathy, and openness will help you develop the right relationships within your team, shorten and strengthen the feedback cycle, and eventually bring your organization to a new level.
Empathy, respect, and mutual trust
Before we go into this in more detail, let’s pause and define what empathy, respect, and mutual trust mean for us:
Merriam Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
In a professional setup, empathy means being aware of other peoples’ needs and emotions and, for instance, being able to predict their reactions. We will talk about why this is important in the next section, but, in a nutshell, empathy allows us to adapt our relationships between ourselves and our colleagues so that every interaction results in a win-win scenario.
Respect encompasses admiration for someone because of their talents, abilities, or achievements. It is of particular importance because, as we explore further, everybody’s talents and capabilities are different and unlikely to change within a reasonable time.
Mutual trust is the belief in each party’s ability to fulfill expectations and is seldom possible without having respect and empathy toward the other party.
Why is it needed?
It is essential because we are not machines. As mentioned earlier, the ‘matter’ that boosts a company’s revenue is in peoples’ heads. And people are of different temperaments and mindsets, are in various stages of life, and often come from different cultures with varying habits. All this comes to play during daily work and communication, so if you want to communicate and collaborate as efficiently as possible, you need to be mindful of it. And that is only possible through learning about each other, tuning into the same frequency, and actively working on the relationship.
Another big part is delegation. Every freshly promoted individual contributor soon learns that delegation is neither easy nor automatic. It is a process that only works if mutual trust has already been established between the manager and their report. To make things even more complex, not only is delegation necessary for balancing work in a team, but it is also a tool that strengthens trust and builds confidence in one’s abilities and can (and should) be applied that way. Delegation is a broad topic and there is already a ton of great material on it. I would recommend starting with this article on HBS.
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But, in my opinion, the most important part of all this is how feedback can be applied and how effective it is. Providing and receiving good feedback can be quite a complex topic for both sides and is virtually impossible without developing some trust and respect between the two. You can probably easily imagine your reaction if a total stranger approached you and started describing what they felt you might be doing wrong. It would require a lot of self-reflection not to flip out and take the feedback to heart.
How to develop mutual trust
Okay, now that you understand why you should invest in building a rapport with your reports, how do you go about doing it?
This is very simple: just be genuine, open, and honest. Often, and especially with people new to a management role, we see a certain fear (or uncertainty) of people not taking them “seriously,” losing respect, etc., if they allow themselves to be “too close” to their team. That is simply wrong. In a healthy organization, everybody is there for a reason, be it a specific talent, personal trait, or experience. Everybody has a role and a manager is just that. It is not an entitlement, but simply a position that encapsulates particular duties and responsibilities, just like every other role present within an organization. Yes, you can get promoted to a more “senior” level in your career track, but at its core, this is usually recognition of your progress and slight adjustments to your responsibilities so that you can use your traits to have a higher impact on the company.
Don’t confine yourself to your (albeit virtual) office. Go “out,” talk to people, share outside-of-work stories and your hobbies, and listen. We all have different lives, and learning about other people and finding common ground makes us more relatable.
Getting back to the topic of knowledge sharing and combining — you can’t do that without learning. Not only learning about your own domain but also “cross-pollinating” with other domains and departments. And, more importantly for us, simply being curious about other peoples’ work and the problems they solve, digging deep, brainstorming, and sharing your experiences. Show people that you care about the common goal and them as colleagues, which then, in turn, strengthens your relationship.
Every article about soft skills, people management, coaching, etc., starts with an emphasis on listening, and for a good reason. Being present during a conversation, trying to comprehend what the other side is saying, paraphrasing what we have just heard, and, in the end, providing valuable insight allows us to step outside of our own way of thinking and accept another person’s point of view. It then enables a better flow and mix of information and thus brings the value we strive for. But, most importantly for us, it shows the other person that we care about what they have to say and respect their opinion even if we don’t share it.
Describing, listening, and especially active listening as a technique would likely require a whole series of articles. Instead, let me recommend the brilliant book ‘I Hear You’ by Michael Sorensen.
On the topic of feedback
Now that we know why all this is important and have a hunch on how to achieve it, let’s talk about the last piece of our puzzle – the dreaded feedback. You can view feedback from two angles:
The #1 tool for improvement
This is simple — how else do you want to improve without knowing what to improve? Feedback is absolutely crucial for continuous development. Without feedback, you are literally not able to pinpoint what your weak spots are and where you might want to invest your time.
Not all feedback is equal, though. It is critical to learn how to remain constructive with it, how and when (hint: as soon as possible) to provide it, and how to shape it so that the recipient understands that our intention is to help them, not to hurt them or undermine their work or skills.
Our colleague, Václav, describes how important feedback is for new managers in this awesome article.
Showing that you care
This might sound contradictory but becomes quite obvious when you think about it. Imagine you have been working with your report for some time and have a good working relationship and generally respect each other. When you have all this netting in place, giving your colleague sincere, constructive feedback is perceived as goodwill, which is exactly what we want. I have a personal anecdote about this. Over the past couple of years, I have worked with several teams. With each one, I tried to follow my own advice and build good sincere relationships with my colleagues. As it happens, sometimes you have to let people go because of poor performance or simply the wrong fit.
In a situation like this, I want to keep it constructive and evidence-based while also showing that I care and this is truly the best outcome for both the team and the person being let go. Every time this happened, people did not leave feeling angry but instead either relieved or at least at peace with the decision we had made together. People actually thanked me when we concluded the conversation.
Again, feedback as a topic is a broad one but one worth exploring. I would start with a classic: ‘Radical Candor’ by Kim Scott. And ‘Difficult Conversations’ by Stone, Patton, and Heen will help you dive deeper into the analyses of tough conversations and offer invaluable insights you can use in your daily life.
We probably already know the answer to our initial question, but what we have tried to show is why it matters and how to achieve it. By understanding the importance of empathy, relationships, and mutual respect, you can be a strong partner to your colleagues. And through honest interaction, mutual respect, and tight feedback loops, you can together help build a culture of growth in your organization.
As for the how: remember to be genuine and present. After all, we are all human and put our human nature into everything we do, especially work. Taking that into account and showing it will make even the most difficult conversations more straightforward and productive.