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Stop Sabotaging Your Career
By Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D.

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 Stop Sabotaging Your Career

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Stop Sabotaging Your Career
By Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D.
ISBN: 0446697850
Genre: Business & Money

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Chapter Excerpt from: Stop Sabotaging Your Career , by Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D.


Build Strong 360-Degree Relationships

People wish to be confirmed in their being by others. Secretly and bashfully we watch for a yes that comes from another human being.

Martin Buber, philosopher and educator

If you’re like so many clients who have told me, “I’m not here to win a popularity contest. I’m here to do my job,” this chapter has your name written all over it. Like it or not, you can’t be effective in the long run without strong 360-degree relationships. Even more important, when you need a relationship, it’s too late to build it. Consider the fates of two equally capable but temperamentally different world leaders: former US President Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are intelligent men, politically driven, and charismatic in their own rights, but both encountered serious challenges at the height of their careers.

Despite his many transgressions, both before and during his term of office, Clinton reminded many people of the kid brother who was always getting into mischief but whom they loved anyway. Those who have met him consistently describe him in similar ways: “When he talks to you, he makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room”; “He talks to you in a way that draws you in”; “He asks you questions about yourself—and actually remembers the answers.” I firmly believe the primary reason why Clinton wasn’t run out of office for behavior that some would describe as improper and others might call immoral (but most would agree was unbecoming the leader of the free world) was that he was a master at building relationships. He possessed a high likability quotient— something that I address in a later chapter.

To understand how such a bright guy could end up in such hot water, you have only to go back and study his childhood. Young William Jefferson Clinton grew up not knowing his biological father and watching his alcoholic stepfather abuse his younger brother, Roger, and his beloved mother, Virginia. He lived on the wrong side of the tracks, a chubby but intelligent kid. His survival depended on, in part, his ability to be charming and likable. But overdeveloped skill in these arenas became double-edged swords. The same charm that caused Americans to twice elect him president was also used to sexually exploit women. Just as he was elected through the power of his personality, his presidency was tarnished by the behaviors of a man acting much like an emotionally impoverished little boy. Of course, the factors contributing to Clinton’s or anyone else’s behavior are far more complex than this, but it does give you an idea of how early-childhood experiences contribute to career success—and potential self-sabotage.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s political fate was determined by just the opposite phenomenon: the failure to build relationships. Elected prime minister of Israel in 1996 by a victory margin of less than 1 percent, he served only one term before being ousted by an opposing political party. Despite the fact that his policies were met with overwhelming approval from the Israeli people, he was never able to build the kinds of relationships that would support him in the longer term. And in retrospect, he knew that this was a major factor in his downfall. In a January 1999 interview with Time magazine, when asked what he would do differently if he had a second term in office, he replied, “I wouldn’t do anything differently on the political side. Where I would do things differently is in the management of egos . . . the maintenance, shall we say, of, ah, personal relationships.” A look at his more recent forays back into Israeli politics suggest this is a lesson he has yet to master.

This simple truth is one that many people refuse to understand until it’s too late: The ability to do your job is contingent upon having relationships in place that will support your efforts, provide you with what you need when you need it, cut you slack when you make a mistake, and act in your best interests during good times and bad. Taking time to build relationships is the best investment of time and energy you can make in your career for the long haul. It may not seem like it when you have to stay late because you took the time to listen to someone who needed an ear or went out of your way to do someone a favor, but believe me, it will pay dividends when you least expect it.

One of my very first coaching clients was a man whom I’ll call Sam. He was the director of sales at a large manufacturing company. When the vice president of human resources called me about Sam, she told me that he was an outstanding and valued employee. No fault could be found with the quality of his work. The problem was that his peers didn’t want to work with him. They found Sam to be aloof, standoffish, and difficult to work with. Despite the fact that he was technically competent, he would soon become persona non grata if he didn’t stop creating problems within the sales department.

Sam arrived at our first coaching session looking every bit the executive. Neatly groomed and impeccably dressed, he appeared to be the very model of professionalism. As we became acquainted with each other through initial superficial conversation, I noted that he spoke with a clarity and confidence that belied his age (he was in his late twenties). When I asked him what skills he thought his management wanted him to develop via coaching, he didn’t have a clue. He said he just wanted to do the best job possible and tried to do everything asked of him perfectly so as to make his boss and the department look good. That’s when a light went on for me.

The package that Sam presented was indeed one of perfection. On the surface, his image and communication skills were excellent, but my hunch—and it later proved accurate—was that he strived so hard to be perfect for the boss that he overlooked other critical workplace behaviors. I explored this with him by changing tack. I asked what he did for fun outside work. In other words, what was he like when he wasn’t being perfect? Unexpectedly, this unleashed a flood of emotion. Sam held back tears as he said that he didn’t have much of a life outside work. He was going through a difficult divorce and had three children he rarely got to see because he arrived at work early and left late. By the time he made the hour-long commute home, he was exhausted, grabbing something to eat and then falling into bed. Weekends were spent working; he had little time to pursue activities and friendships he’d once enjoyed.

After carefully listening to him, I asked if perhaps his need for affiliation was fulfilled at work with friends and colleagues. His answer was no. He worked through lunch hours and didn’t want to waste the company’s time and money on idle chat or gossip with co-workers. He did notice that his peers seemed to spend time engaged in casual conversation—which he felt was fine for them, but he didn’t have the time to spare for chitchat. He wanted to model appropriate behavior for his staff, so he worked at a steady, energetic pace throughout the workday and often into the night.

What others interpreted as standoffishness, or being difficult to deal with, was really just Sam’s need to be the perfect employee. Having grown up with strict German parents, he developed the defense mechanism of striving for perfection early in life so as to ward off critical comments from his parents and older siblings. The need to be perfect underscored not only his workplace relationships, but his personal ones as well. One reason his marriage had failed was that he felt his wife didn’t understand his high standards. Even though he never said anything to his colleagues, they picked up on the fact that he was critically assessing them. He found their personal conversations self-indulgent and didn’t feel that anyone else worked as hard as he did—which was in fact true. No one else shared his compulsive need for perfection.


Sam is an ideal example of someone who, despite technical competence and genuine desire to be of service, was on the verge of causing serious damage to his career. An infrequently talked about fact of business life is that at some point in most people’s careers, technical expertise ceases to be the key factor contributing to success. We build our reputations early in our careers on competence. We remain successful, however, based on a combination of competence and the eight factors described in this book. Once you have proven your technical abilities in your field, competence becomes a given—something that others depend and rely on, but not something that necessarily will continue to move you forward. It’s as though your competence reaches the point of diminishing returns. If you continue to focus exclusively on gaining increased technical skill to the exclusion of developing complementary behaviors, you’ll become professionally unbalanced. If a prizefighter has a killer right uppercut but can’t move deftly on his feet, it will do him no good to continue to develop that uppercut. He needs complementary strengths that will help him win bouts, not just rounds.

Review the checklist on page 43 to see how well you build one-on-one relationships. Ideally, you would check every item here (as well as with each checklist contained in subsequent chapters). The fewer items you check, the greater the likelihood that this is a potential developmental area for you.


In a competitive job market, employers are careful to choose people for their past experience, education, and previous on-the-job success. In other words, they select people who are good at what they do. Once on the job, however, when the playing field is level with equally qualified employees, it’s the subtler behaviors that distinguish the fast-trackers from those who remain stagnant or are overlooked for new opportunities. Those with superior interpersonal skills, combined with technical capability, are perceived as a more valuable asset than those who exhibit only technical competence. It is through positive working relationships that we secure the cooperation of the people we need to accomplish our tasks and further the organization’s goals. These interpersonal skills also help us to develop the goodwill of clients and customers and a network of people on whom we can rely for the skills and information required to function effectively.

_____ I know the names of the people on my floor.

_____ I notice when something is troubling a colleague and inquire about it.

_____ I schedule time throughout the day for small talk with co-workers.

_____ I meet socially with co-workers outside the workplace.

_____ I tend to go out of my way for colleagues— even if I see no immediate benefit.

_____ I see building relationships as equally important to accomplishing my job tasks.

_____ Other people describe me as a good listener.

_____ I know the names of the husbands, wives, significant others, and children of my co-workers.

_____ I share personal information and discuss topics of common interest with my co-workers.

_____ I treat administrative professionals the same as I treat executive management.

_____ I have lunch several times a week with co-workers.

In Sam’s case, coaching alone wasn’t sufficient to help him remain relevant and competitive in his work environment. The presence of a deep-seated need for perfection suggests intrapersonal conflicts that required professional counseling. Fortunately, when this was recommended to Sam, he was open to the idea and followed up on it. His coaching sessions then focused on several specific things that he could do immediately to change the impression others had of him. He is a good example of someone who had several overlapping areas of development. Sam needed not only to do a better job of building one-on-one relationships, but also to be perceived as a better team player and to begin thinking about the importance of networking. My work with him addressed all three areas.

His first assignment was to spend no less than fifteen minutes each day engaged in casual conversation with a different co-worker—even if he had to force himself to do it or put it on his calendar as a reminder to get up and do it. I wanted him to get to know his colleagues personally—to find out what outside interests and hobbies they had, the names of their children, and what made them tick. If you’re anything like Sam, your heart is beating a little faster at just reading this—or you may be making mental excuses why it’s not possible. Suggesting they do this makes some people feel as if they are robbing the company coffers, when in reality they are investing in relationships that have a long-term benefit to the company. Building such relationships enables the work to be done more efficiently, with less sabotage and higher team morale. That saves the company money, it doesn’t waste it.

Similarly, I recommended that initially Sam take a lunch break at least once a week and use the time for something he enjoyed. The adage All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy was certainly true in this case. Part of what made it so difficult for Sam to talk to others was that he felt he had nothing to say. He had become so immersed in his work that he was oblivious to outside interests. Sam decided to make use of the company gym to work out. At the gym, he met several co-workers with whom he shared common interests and eventually became friends; he started to have lunch and socialize with them after work. He began to expand his network.

In an effort to coach him to be a better team player, I recommended that Sam listen to the concerns co-workers expressed at team meetings and later offer to help resolve some of these concerns rather than use his time to perfect and fail-safe his already good work. He could put his compulsive work behaviors to good use by extending himself to those who needed his assistance. In other words, he could win back their regard by making not only his boss look good, but his colleagues as well. In the process, he was building what is described as network reciprocity—the exchange of services and favors within formal and informal networks. The importance of networks is discussed in detail in a later chapter, but for now suffice it to say that Sam had to identify and participate in the quid pro quo of his workplace relationships.

It wasn’t easy for him, but Sam worked hard to change the perceptions of others as he successfully learned how to overcome his strengths. It also wasn’t always two steps forward. As with most people learning a new skill, it was sometimes one step forward, two steps back. As a result of his effort, however, Sam was promoted to a new position in a different division of the company, started spending more time with his children, and now reports that the quality of his life is better than he has ever known it to be.


Inherent to every relationship there is a quid pro quo— something given in exchange for something else. Without realizing it, you exchange things with people all the time. When relationships fail or falter, it’s typically because the quid pro quo isn’t recognized, or it changes without the consent or acknowledgment of one or both of the parties involved. I remember working with one woman who was concerned with her troubled employment history. It seemed that she had no trouble getting a job. In fact, she was never without one for long. She was technically competent, physically attractive, and interpersonally capable. Clearly, she presented well in interviews and secured most of the jobs for which she interviewed. The problem was that once she was in the job, she became quickly dissatisfied and disillusioned. Her employers wouldn’t give her challenging assignments or recognize her technical capability.

In an effort to uncover what the cause of the problem really was, I asked her to role-play an interview with me. Much to my surprise, I found this professional woman turned into a femme fatale! The normally assertive demeanor that I had come to associate with her was replaced by what I would describe as an intentionally sweet disposition. The slight Southern accent with which she normally spoke became more pronounced. She was coy, acquiescent, and charming. It was almost as if she were flirting.

The role play made it apparent that the woman secured the job based on one set of behaviors but unwittingly changed them once she was inside the company. In other words, the quid pro quo changed. Her employer expected one thing based on the interview and, instead, got something else. She didn’t present as, nor was she selected for being, an assertive, upwardly mobile career woman in the interview. Her employers selected her for the behavior she presented, not what she became once employed. This created a chasm between what they wanted and what she wanted. There was obviously nothing wrong with what she wanted, but it wasn’t the message she gave during her interviews. When the quid pro quo changed, unbeknownst to the parties involved, it created turmoil and unfulfilled expectations for both.

Part of building successful relationships at work involves identifying the quid pro quo between you and everyone with whom you interact, and working to assure that everyone’s needs—including your own—are met. Some people tell me that this business of quid pro quo sounds awfully manipulative. On the contrary! It’s an honest, businesslike assessment of what you have to offer others and what you need from them. We trade on relationships all day long without ever realizing or discussing it. Say, a month ago you asked me to cover for you at a meeting so that you could attend to a problem with one of your children, and I willingly agreed. A few weeks later, I needed some research done that only you know how to do, and you gladly obliged. Neither of us was counting the chips we had collected with each trade, but they had accumulated in our accounts. The trick is to always have more chips in your account than you need—and this can’t be done manipulatively; it can only be done through a generosity of spirit. To do otherwise would soil the integrity of the relationship.

The value of the quid pro quo was apparent during a training program I conducted when a small group working on an assignment decided that they needed an LCD projector to make a presentation to the larger group. One participant said that she thought she could arrange it and excused herself to make a call. I mentally noted that there was little chance of getting the equipment on time—their presentation was just a few hours away. Ninety minutes later, a man entered the room with the LCD in hand. He also took the time to set it up and make certain it was working properly before he left. At the break, I asked the woman how she’d managed to get it so quickly. She smiled and said, “I’ve done a lot of favors for this guy. He owed me one.” Without ever saying, You owe me, she successfully traded on the quid pro quo.

My own life has been profoundly impacted by this concept of the quid pro quo. When I first started my consulting business more than twenty years ago, I received a call from an administrative assistant I once helped while I worked at the oil company ARCO (now BP). At the time, her boss had delegated to her the responsibility for preparing the department’s affirmative action plans. If you’ve ever prepared one, you know they’re quite complex and not a lot of fun to do. She knew that I had experience developing these plans, so she asked for my assistance. As much as I, too, hated preparing affirmative action plans, I was happy to help her complete the assignment and didn’t give it a second thought. For several subsequent years, she would call me when it came time to complete the plan, and each year I helped her get it done. When I left the company, I never expected our paths would cross again—until a call came in from her.

As we chatted, I learned that she was now working in the international training department at ARCO. The training director from ARCO Indonesia was coming into town and was looking for someone to conduct management training programs from a Western perspective. My former colleague wanted to know if I would be interested in meeting with him to discuss the training programs I had developed. Her call came at a time when I was struggling to get my business off the ground and having difficulty meeting my financial objectives. I wound up meeting with the man, and within a few weeks I was in the exotic city of Jakarta conducting training. Over the years I developed a clientele in Indonesia with several multinational firms that have provided me with a steady stream of business, income, and friendships—and all because I took the time to do a favor for one administrative assistant with no expectation that it would ever be returned.

Besides covering at meetings, conducting research, or referral to potential clients, what else gets traded in the workplace? You would be surprised. Here’s a list that participants in one workshop came up with in less than five minutes:

• Information

• Lunch

• Gossip

• Priority

• Muscle/brawn

• Gifts

• Heads-up (advance notice)

• Quality service

• Friendship

• Technical know-how

• Raises

• Influence

• Public praise

• Promotions

• Quick turnaround time

• A listening ear

• Help

• Feedback

• Personal concern

It’s important to remember that once you need a relationship, it’s too late to build it. This is what makes building relationships on an ongoing basis so important. Again, it can’t be done simply for the purpose of knowing that you might have to call on it at some time. It must be done because you value people and your relationships with them. Absent this, others will detect a lack of genuineness, and perhaps a bit of manipulation, and never fully engage in a healthy and productive professional relationship with you.

Every so often, I hear someone claim that he or she just doesn’t care about building relationships. It always strikes me as oddly incongruous. The same people who claim not to care frequently exhibit behaviors that indicate they care very much. I’ve come to learn that it’s simply their defense mechanisms speaking. After years of being hurt by others or not having much success in building relationships, they build impenetrable walls that they dare others to break through. In other cases, people who claim not to care about others are the same ones who don’t care much about themselves. They don’t pay attention to their own needs and certainly don’t expect others to fulfill them. Whatever the reason, it is critical to overcome real or perceived indifference to the people with whom you interact. Once technical competence has become a given, the foundation on which successful careers are built is genuine, mutually rewarding relationships.

Look at the person at the very top of your own organization. It’s unlikely that he’s a rocket scientist or that she could find a cure for cancer. In fact, there are probably many people smarter, and perhaps more technically capable, than your CEO. Despite this lack of genius, he or she found the way to the topmostlikely due to basic competence combined with the relationships that were built throughout a career.

Then there are those who build good relationships—but only with people at levels in the organization that are higher than their own. It’s a clever move, but one that usually proves a fatal mistake in the long term. You can probably identify people like this in your own organization. They’re like heat-seeking missiles. Watch them in a room full of people—they’ll gravitate toward those with the most power. The only problem is that power shifts. Those in power today may be out tomorrow. Or the person in power may delegate day-to-day operational responsibility and decision making to a direct report. If you stepped on the toes of this direct report on your way to the power source, it’s going to be a lot harder to get your needs met.

I once worked with a woman who built her career on relationships with people in power. She managed up quite successfully, but she overlooked the importance of gaining the commitment of colleagues and staff. Because of her relationships with senior management, she traded favors to become exempt from the grunt work the rest of us had to do. It worked for a while, but then, as in most corporations, the power shifted. Her protectors were out, and a new wave of power brokers swept in. Many of the new people in power had, at one time, been this woman’s colleagues. They had long memories and short tolerance for what she had put them through over the years. Within months, the situation was so uncomfortable for her that she was out looking for another job.

Fear of losing your job should not be the primary reason for building relationships with people at all levels of the organization, however. A wealth of information resides within the rank and file, and at some point you will have a need for it. It’s a lot easier to gain access to information when you already have a relationship in place at the time you need the information, rather than trying to pry it loose from someone with whom you never took the time to speak in the hallway or the coffee room. Besides, you spend nearly a third of your life at work—building warm, collegial relationships can make it even more fulfilling.

Once you have achieved technical competence, building relationships is the most important thing that you can do to continue along your successful career path. How do you do it? The remainder of this chapter tells you, but if initially in your life or career you received more reinforcement for task accomplishment than for relationship building, you won’t find it particularly easy or comfortable. Like Sam, whom you read about earlier in this chapter, you may have to take some risks and be willing to stop hiding behind your technical competence. One thing is for certain, though: The profit will outweigh the risk in the long term.


The late John F. Kennedy Jr. was once asked what made his father such a beloved figure in American history. He replied that he thought it was because his father was such a good listener. Others had shared with him stories about how the late president could make people feel comfortable and empowered by simply listening. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and wife of the aviator Charles Lindbergh, underscores the importance of this trait: “It is not possible to talk wholeheartedly to more than one person at a time. You can’t really talk to a person unless you surrender to them for the moment (all other talk is futile). You can’t surrender to more than one person a moment.”

Listening is the most important thing that you can do to build and maintain relationships. Most people spend the greatest part of their days hearing what others say, but few people really listen. They don’t take the time to fully understand what other people think, what problems they may be encountering, or how they feel. You’ve probably heard the maxim, People are given two ears and only one mouth so that they’ll listen twice as much as they speak. But do you adhere to it? There are myriad reasons why it’s difficult to surrender to another, and the reasons differ from person to person. Decide which reasons on this list are your greatest obstacles to listening:

Rehearsing. Mentally practicing what you’re going to say before the speaker stops talking is rehearsing. The moment you start rehearsing, you stop listening.

The halo effect. This is thinking that you already know what someone is going to say, or putting a positive or negative slant on the message, based on your previous relationship with the person. For example, if every time Bob comes into my office he gives me bad news, before long, when I see Bob, I cast a negative halo around all his messages, regardless of actual content. Conversely, if Ingrid and I have a great relationship, then I tend to perceive her messages positively no matter what the content.

Pseudo-listening. Pretending to listen (and even looking like you are) when in fact you’re thinking about something other than the message is pseudo-listening. You know that you’ve been busted for pseudo-listening when the speaker asks, “So what do you think?” and you don’t have a clue what’s just been said.

Distractions. When you’re preoccupied with other thoughts or problems, you become distracted and unable to listen to the message. Interruptions or noise (phones ringing, people coming in and out of your office, noise from the hallway) make it difficult to concentrate on the speaker’s message and are common workplace distractions.

Listening for a point of disagreement. We all know people who wait for one point with which they disagree so that they can look intelligent, one-up the speaker, or impress others in the conversation. If you listen for a point of disagreement, you’re potentially missing lots of points on which you could agree and build.

Nervousness. Anxiety about the situation, the message, or upcoming responsibilities impedes being able to fully listen to the message.

Disinterest. It’s difficult to listen to the subject or the speaker if the topic is of no interest to you.

Poor speaker. A speaker who is boring, has difficulty making his or her point, or who makes the subject dry and tedious is someone to whom you may be unlikely to listen.

You will have to ascertain for yourself the reasons you fail to completely surrender yourself to others when they speak. Once you do, you’ll be able to overcome some of your difficulties by engaging in the technique of active listening developed by the psychologist Carl Rogers. He coined the term unconditional positive regard to refer to the process by which you enter into a relationship believing the best about another person. Without strings attached or qualification, you hold another person in high esteem. To really listen to someone, you first must have unconditional positive regard for him or her. Otherwise, the halo effect overshadows the message. Rogers said that once you have unconditional positive regard, active listening, rather than the passive taking in of information, can help you to assure that you’ve actually heard not only the message but also what the speaker may not be saying.

Active listening involves three steps.

Step 1: Paraphrasing

This is the act of repeating (in your own words) what you think the speaker has just said. If you haven’t really listened, then you can’t do it. If you haven’t surrendered yourself to the speaker, paraphrasing isn’t as easy as it sounds. You needn’t worry about repeating the message verbatim. When you paraphrase, the other person will let you know if you correctly heard the message. Paraphrasing also has the secondary benefit of allowing the speaker to hear his or her message played back. After a paraphrase, it’s not unusual to hear someone say, “That’s what I said, but it’s not what I meant.” It allows clarification for both the speaker and the listener.

Here’s an example of a paraphrase:

Speaker: Whew! I’m glad that presentation is over. Every member of the board of directors was there, and every one of them had questions. What was supposed to be a fifteen-minute presentation turned into an hour of picking apart every last detail of the proposed new building site.

Listener: Sounds like your audience really raked you over the coals.

Speaker: And how. I never knew there could be so many differences of opinion about what I thought was a done deal. At least I was able to answer every question.

When you paraphrase, the speaker feels heard and is encouraged to continue. Done to the extreme without using other active listening techniques, however, paraphrasing gives the impression of simply parroting the speaker. The next step is asking questions that provide for further clarification and full understanding.

Step 2: Asking Appropriate Questions

By asking questions, both you and the speaker delve more deeply into the content of the message. An appropriate question is always one that is based on what has just been said. All too often the listener changes the direction of the conversation by asking a question unrelated to what the speaker is saying. On the surface, it may appear appropriate, but closer examination reveals that it’s really just a polite way to change the subject. An example of an inappropriate question based on what the speaker above said would be, “What did you think about the guy from ABC Company who sits on the board? I’m going to have to meet with him next week.” Active listening for the purpose of building relationships is designed to help you to hear and understand another person, not get your needs met at that particular moment. If the listener wants to build a relationship with the speaker, then the focus has to remain with the speaker. Here’s how the conversation might continue:

Listener: Are you worried that the project might be stalled?

Speaker: Not really. It’s just that everyone was trying to one-up everyone else, and the only way they could really do it was by showing how much they knew about the building site and proposal. I just got caught in the cross fire. I guess I thought that the presentation was pro forma, when in fact I see now that it was a political decision to put me on the agenda.

Now the listener has even more information about what happened, why the speaker thinks it happened, and without anything being said directlyhow he or she might feel. Here is where the third part of active listening comes in—the ability to extrapolate the speaker’s feelings from the spoken message by reading between the lines.

Step 3: Reflecting Feelings

This is the toughest part of active listening. It involves taking a guess about how you think the other person must feel. It brings the relationship to an even deeper level of understanding. People who have difficulty expressing their own feelings have difficulty with listening to and reflecting the feelings of others. If you reflect feelings and they’re ignored, or the conversation comes to a grinding halt, it’s best to drop this step. Part of being an active listener and listening with a third ear includes the ability to respond to the needs of the speaker. If talking about feelings makes him or her uncomfortable, don’t push. Not everyone wants his or her feelings reflected, but those who do will appreciate a well-timed reflection.

The same conversation might continue with this reflection and additional paraphrasing and questions:

Listener: You must have felt as though you were ambushed.

Speaker: Yeah, I was pretty mad. I wished that someone had let me know what the real agenda was instead of my having to figure it out for myself. I guess I felt a little foolish.

Listener: I don’t blame you for feeling as you do. What are you going to do about it?

Speaker: I’m not sure yet. I do know that I don’t want to be put in that situation again—or at least I want to be forewarned about it.

Listener: How do you think you might prevent it from happening in the future?

Speaker: I guess I should talk to the boss. She’s usually open to hearing me out. I think I’ll sleep on it and decide tomorrow what to do.

Listener: Sounds like a good idea. Let me know if I can help in any way.

Speaker: You already have.

This conversation could have gone in any number of directions—and all away from the speaker’s feelings. Active listening helps you stay focused on the topic and not be distracted by tangential issues or personal needs. As you can see, it requires surrendering to the speaker and putting your own opinion on hold for the moment. The speaker walks away feeling as if he or she has really been heard, and the listener benefits from understanding the full context of the message—both content and emotion.


Now that you know how to listen, the next question is: To what degree are you comfortable taking the time to do it? If relationships are the cornerstone of ongoing career success, then doorway conversations are the cornerstone of workplace relationships. The term doorway conversations comes from a client who uses it to describe those moments when someone appears in your doorway and stands there talking about the latest headline, the previous night’s baseball game, or a problem he or she is encountering with a child. In the scheme of things, it may seem trivial to spend time talking about these subjects, but in the long term these are the very things on which relationships are built. As Dale Carnegie once said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

Relationships that are valuable and meaningful have three essential ingredients: trust, reciprocity, and genuine caring. There’s no faking these three elements. They are what distinguish a casual encounter from a real relationship. This is not to say that every workplace relationship must be of the same caliber as the relationships you have with your best friends, but rather that both relationships share common elements. People who fail to build solid workplace relationships frequently fail to build solid friendships. The same childhood defense mechanisms get in the way of both growing close to a friend and knowing a colleague on more than a superficial level. People who have no trouble building relationships may at this point be saying, But all of this is so obvious! It may be obvious for you, but for people who have never built mutually rewarding relationships, especially in the workplace, the next section is critical.


How do you develop trust? Why do we trust some people more than others? Why are certain people everyone’s trusted friend whereas others have difficulty getting people to confide in them? The answer lies in the degree to which you act consistently and honestly. Consistency is the key to enabling others to know what to expect from you. Honesty lets them know that you do what you say you will. Combined, these qualities are very powerful in building trust in the workplace.

One of the more bizarre cases that I investigated when I was an equal employment opportunity specialist involved a woman who’d filed a sex discrimination charge with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing claiming that her boss was rude, condescending, and treated her unfairly. She believed that this was because she was a woman and that the men in her department were not treated similarly. When I interviewed both male and female co-workers, it turned out that they did not share her opinion that women were treated unfairly; in fact, they trusted their boss very much. How could there be such disparate opinions of the same boss? Each of the people interviewed admitted that the boss was difficult and could be rude and obnoxious. He would yell at them in front of colleagues and embarrass them at meetings, but they watched him do this to everyone, not any one individual. “It’s just the way he is” was a common remark.

The irony in this situation was that they trusted him because he acted consistently with everyone. They knew exactly what to expect from him, even if it was inappropriate behavior, and therefore always knew where they stood. Winning this case for the company relied on men in the department being willing to state that they were treated the same as the woman filing the claim. There was no unlawful discrimination—just one very bad manager, which is exactly what the commission eventually determined.

I don’t recommend that you show everyone the same terrible treatment that this man did, but there is a lesson here. Even in the face of adversity, people will trust if there is consistency. Now, imagine the kind of trusting relationships that could be built with positive behaviors! Think of the people you trust. It’s likely that you’re willing to go the extra mile for them, because you know that they are true to their words and can anticipate how they will react in most situations.


Reciprocity involves not only the quid pro quo exchange described earlier in this chapter, but also a mutuality of sharing. In a solid workplace relationship, both people know that the other has similar feelings about the nature of the friendship. They know this because there is a mutual sharing of personal information, allowing the human side to emerge. Too many of us have been taught that there’s no place at work for personal problems or personal information to be shared. Because we spend the largest part of our day at work, however, it’s only natural to disclose personal information there. In instances in which people may be good listeners but don’t share personal information, they’ll soon set themselves apart from everyone else.

Adults who come from narcissistic parents are particularly vulnerable to this dilemma. They learned early in life that they are merely reflections of their parents and, therefore, should not think that their own needs deserve consideration. They go through life listening, but not sharing their own thoughts and feelings. In a workplace relationship, the person who is always doing the talking may begin to feel uncomfortable about continuing to share information when he or she knows nothing about the other person in return. In reality, it takes very little self-disclosure to create a sense of mutuality. It must simply be enough to illuminate the human side of your character.

At a workshop that I was conducting, I mentioned a personal experience that demonstrated what happens when paraphrasing and asking questions are needed but not done. I was collaborating in the design of a new training program with a client who could talk endlessly about ideas and possibilities without ever putting closure on them. Getting impatient and running short on time, I didn’t delve deeply into what he was really thinking. Instead, I took what he said at face value and spent quite a bit of time designing the program I thought he wanted. When I presented the outline and materials to him, it was clear this wasn’t what he wanted at all.

After mentioning this obvious mistake to the group, a woman came up to me and, somewhat critically, asked why I’d felt the need to make myself look bad in front of the group. She believed the comment was unnecessary and made me look less than perfect. I explained that I wanted program participants to see me as human and that even though I teach these methods for listening, I, too, have to constantly work at them. Her question was really directed more at herself than at me. It unwittingly revealed that she feared appearing vulnerable and didn’t want others to know about her human foibles. Whereas most people in the group got my meta-message, it served only to push one of her fear buttons.

Often, as with this woman, the fear that many people have that they will be seen as less competent or somehow imperfect precludes them from being genuine with others. However, honest self-disclosure can be a valuable tool in letting others see the human side of you, and most people do not take advantage of it. The willingness to be seen and heard can actually be quite a liberating experience.

Genuine Caring

The last of the three ingredients for successful relationships, genuine caring, is the hardest of all to coach. It’s something that comes from deep inside the heart and transcends logic and intellect. The absence of caring is a lot easier to explain than how to care, because the absence suggests the lack of caring in your own life. With the exception of perhaps sociopaths, who truly lack the ability to care about their fellow human beings, most people have a deep and profound capacity to care. Women tend to have an easier time showing that they care, but it doesn’t mean that men don’t. Men have simply been socialized to hide it better. Therefore, the question is not How can I show that I care? but rather Why don’t I show that I care? When you have the answer to this, you’ll have the answer for how to genuinely care.

Chris appeared not to care at all about her staff of twenty salespeople. Her single-minded devotion was to provide the best service possible to the company’s customers. Her natural energy and enthusiasm made her want to storm every hill she encountered. She was always coming up with unique and creative ways to better serve the customer and overcome existing obstacles to superior service. There’s nothing wrong with all this, of course, but Chris failed to take into account the fact that she could successfully do this only if her staff followed her into battle. While she was charging up the hill, she failed to look behind her to see that her followers were lingering at the bottom, deciding whether or not they wanted the hill.

My first contact with Chris was through a team building session that she requested to find ways for her staff to be more effective. When it came time to assess the team’s strengths and developmental areas, the staff bravely pointed at Chris as being the primary obstacle to their success. They felt she was so self-absorbed that she either didn’t care or couldn’t see whether they had the time, resources, or interest to pursue the projects to which she committed them. So when it came time to deliver, Chris was often left holding the bag and trying to figure out why things weren’t done as she directed or expected. Chris neglected the human needs of her team, and they responded (very humanly) by resisting her efforts.

Chris was hired because it was clear that she could bring value-added service to this company. Her past achievements in former employment situations pointed to this fact. Chris saw herself as someone who could do anything she put her mind to, and she typically didprovided that she could do it alone. When it came to gaining the cooperation of others, she couldn’t quite figure out why she never really got it. Heretofore, Chris had been a tremendous individual contributor, but to maintain momentum she would have to learn how to accomplish the goal through others.

Fortunately for this team, Chris did care about other people. She just had a hard time showing it. She told me about her military father, who expected high achievement but seldom rewarded it. She realized that, in some ways, she had become her father. She expected a lot from her team, but she didn’t see them as people, only as objects there to assist her with meeting her goals. When she understood how this behavior actually impeded her reaching the goal, she was distraught. She had vowed never to do to others what her father had done to her, and yet she now found herself displaying the same behavior. Chris had to learn to complement her already good task-oriented behaviors with skills for building relationships with each team member and creating a cohesive team. Drawing on her teenage experience as a member of a tennis team reminded her of the value of teamwork and became an important point of reference for just how interdependence works.

Chris began trying to win the cooperation of her team with doorway conversations—just dropping by to say hello to people and to find out how, not what, they were doing. As you might imagine, the team at first regarded her with skepticism. They wondered what ulterior motives she had. This discouraged Chris initially, but she was determined to win them over. She approached building relationships in much the same way as she approached her other “projects”—with vigor and enthusiasm. Pretty soon the individuals on her team began responding to her friendly overtures and expressions of interest. Chris didn’t do it to get more work out of her team, but to get to know them as unique and valuable individuals. She learned the hard way the true meaning of Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu’s saying “Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.” It took her a while, but she finally succeeded in building trust, reciprocity, and caring into workplace relationships. That’s what made team members want to work for Chris in the long term and helped keep her on an upwardly mobile career path.


So far I’ve been focusing on how to build strong 360-degree relationships. But perhaps you’re already good at it—maybe even too good. The “You Like Me” acceptance speech that Sally Field made when she won an Academy Award a number of years ago speaks to a unique issue in building relationships. It reveals why she was typically cast in “cute” roles rather than more mature ones. She had an inordinate need to be liked, and that need was typified over and over in her behavior and the roles she received. Thus, a word of caution about building positive relationships: There is a difference between taking the time to build positive relationships and making it the focal point of every activity and decision because you’re afraid people won’t like you. An inordinate need to be liked interferes with your ability to make difficult decisions, be direct with people, get your own needs met, and be perceived as someone who can perform well even when the chips are down.


Although both men and women suffer from this problem, it seems to be more prevalent among women—and for good reason. Women have been socialized to be the nurturers, caretakers, and accommodators in society. They are expected to be good relationship builders. When women act in a manner counter to that expectation, they are often called overly aggressive, bitchy, or some other choice terms. So they go out of their way to be pleasant and try to win support for their ideas by making others like them. It’s one of the self-sabotaging behaviors I talk about in my book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. Overutilization of this particular strength can create situations where others don’t take you seriously. Ironically, it’s the people, both men and women, who have established good workplace relationships who can afford to err on the side of being more assertive or direct. Their accounts are full of chips that can be cashed in at the appropriate time.

Maria is the perfect example of someone whose strength in building relationships interfered with her ability to achieve her career goals. She is the coordinator of outreach efforts for a nonprofit organization. Technically, she knows her job and is respected for her ability to perform it effectively. But when the department manager position opened up on several occasions, she was consistently overlooked as a viable candidate to fill it. When she asked why, she was told that she “wasn’t ready” to take this next step.

If you were to meet Maria, you would like her—as does everyone in her office. She’s warm, affable, and a good listener. She makes you feel as if what you have to say is important to her. If you spend any length of time with her, however, you realize that her strength in this arena stems from the need to be liked and is not balanced with the ability to be direct and straightforward. If she has an opinion different from yours, she won’t tell you. She’ll embrace yours as if it were her own. She won’t take a stand on any issue if she thinks it might offend you. If you correct something that she does wrong, she becomes overly apologetic and tries to make up for the mistake by bringing you home-baked cookies or some other small gift the next day. Maria will never be considered management material until she overcomes this particular strength by balancing it with more assertive behaviors.

Relationships will never take the place of technical competence; they complement and support it. The ability to see and be seen is an essential ingredient for all good relationships, workplace and otherwise. Beyond making an individual contribution and building one-on-one relationships, you have to work effectively as part of a team. The next chapter provides suggestions for how you can be an effective team member and contribute to your team’s success.


Put a check mark in the box of two or three coaching tips you commit to doing.

At least once a week, have lunch with one or more colleagues. Don’t just wait for it to happen—schedule it at the beginning of each week. Use it as an opportunity to get to know your co-workers, clients, or direct reports and to allow them to get to know you on a personal level by not just talking about work, but also finding areas of common interest outside the job.

Drop by one person’s office per day for ten minutes of casual doorway conversation. Put a recurring alarm on your desktop calendar to serve as a reminder that it’s time to get up and get out of your office or cubicle. Ask questions: “I know you’re a gourmet, and I was wondering if you could recommend a good restaurant to take my mother-in-law to this weekend?” or “I heard your daughter is going off to Harvard in the fall. What’s she going to be studying?” The question itself doesn’t matter as much as showing genuine interest in the other person.

Smile at people as you walk past them in the hall. There is no better way to increase your likability quotient than to smile. Don’t look away or look preoccupied as you pass others—seize the opportunity to craft your reputation as a warm and friendly human being.

Keep your office door open unless you are conducting confidential business or trying to meet a tight deadline and don’t want distractions (but never more than a few times each month). If hallway noises are distracting to you, buy a white-noise machine to mute them—it’s better than sitting in a closed office all day and giving the impression you don’t want to talk to anyone.

When people talk to you, surrender yourself for the moment. Develop a mental mantra that will enable you to shift from whatever might preoccupy you to being able to listen to what’s being said. My own is, There is nothing more important than that I be fully present in this moment. It will eventually become the segue from whatever you’re doing to being in the moment.

Open up to people to let them get to know you by disclosing personal information with which you’re comfortable. This isn’t to say you have to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets. Talk about a good movie you saw over the weekend, a particular event on a recent vacation that brought you joy, or something a child did that made you a proud parent.

Accept co-workers’ invitations for lunch or dinner and extend your own. If you think you don’t have time in your busy schedule to break bread with a colleague, think again. Working through lunch makes it look as if you can’t handle your workload. Similarly, socializing outside the office enables you to build warmer, more collegial relationships at work.

Attend company-sponsored social events. You don’t have to be the life of the party or even stay until the event is over—but you do have to show up. Spending a little bit of your own time at these events contributes to the notion that you care about your fellow workers as human beings—not just humans doing.

Learn the names of co-workers’ husbands, wives, significant others, and children. Having a bad memory is no excuse. Write the information down in your contact file along with the person’s phone number and address. It’s just another way to humanize your interactions.

Remember birthdays by keeping a list or marking them on your calendar. Although it’s not necessary to buy a gift or a card, being able to wish people a happy birthday makes them feel special and helps you to build a relationship you might need in the future.

Follow up on information that has been previously shared with you, particularly personal information. You won’t be able to do this if you haven’t really listened or if you’re preoccupied with your own activities. If someone tells you her father is in the hospital with terminal cancer—don’t forget about it. Periodically ask how he’s doing or if there’s anything you can do to help.

Interact with everyone equally, regardless of level in the organization. From the person who cleans your office to the one who signs your paycheck and everyone in between—they all deserve to be treated with unconditional positive regard.

Begin every conversation with small talk (unless past experience tells you the other person doesn’t like it). Before delving into the business at hand, ask other people how they’re doing or what’s new in their lives—and listen to the answers. Small talk cements good professional relationships.

Enroll in a Dale Carnegie course (www.dalecarnegie Many of us remember Dale Carnegie’s former slogan: Win friends and influence people. Dale Carnegie courses, offered at various locations around the world, are designed to provide you with the skills and confidence needed to communicate effectively, deal with problem solving, and inspire co-workers. Course objectives include developing more self-confidence, controlling your fear of an audience, improving your memory, developing a more effective personality, and widening your personal horizons. Additionally, the firm offers both college credit and continuing education credits (CEUs) to anyone participating in its programs.

Don’t allow an inordinate need for others to like you to get in the way of being direct and straightforward. Take more risks around developing your own voice without necessarily ignoring or overlooking the opinions of others. You can do this by paraphrasing what you’ve heard and adding your thoughts to the mix.

Do favors for people even if you don’t anticipate needing them returned. That’s what the quid pro quo is all about. You will find the world a much more abundant place when you act with abundance. Good deeds may not be returned from the person you did a favor for, but they will be returned.

See beyond the task to the human being who is performing it. It has become too easy to see people as merely functionaries carrying out duties and responsibilities. Others are not accountants, engineers, waiters, or teachers—they are mothers, brothers, aunts, and grandparents with feelings and needs. You don’t build relationships with roles—you build relationships with people.

Excerpted from Stop Sabotaging Your Career , by Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D. . Copyright (c) 1998, 2007 by Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D. . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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