Sheryl Sandberg famously said ‘Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.’ Her focus was on career progression, but the analogy works as well when thinking of how work gets done inside an organization.
To accomplish anything meaningful, you need other people and teams involved. This means building relationships not just with your team, but in all directions. Operational freedom is earned from our management and work gets done with our peers. The org chart doesn’t define where work stops, but rather, where it begins.
In relationships, the key ingredient is trust - without it, everything becomes more difficult. Even when intentions are noble, progress is slow - everyone is skeptical, waiting for the latent Machiavellian intent to show up. In this high friction world, commitments must be in writing - all parties are cc’d and quid pro quo rules the day. The gears gum up, and progress stalls.
If trust has been earned, a handshake deal is all you need. If things go wrong, and they always do, all minds focus on solving the problem vs. blaming others. Work becomes a beautiful dance - purposeful and fun. Of course, it takes time to build trust, but what’s the alternative?
As a leader, remember that your teams work with other groups as well. If you’re in a cold war with another organization, undermining each other behind the scenes, life becomes exponentially harder for your people. In other words, by failing to nurture strong relationships with your peers, you’re not just failing yourself, you’re failing your team.
Lincoln’s insight is that most people are not inherently bad. The root cause of friction stems from a lack of shared purpose, values or incentives. With this in mind, the next time you feel tension in a relationship, pause and assume good intent. Shift your perspective from “it’s who they are” to a more charitable view. If we are honest with ourselves, under the same circumstances, we may act the same.
In our work jungle gym, don’t forget that leading up the chain is a critical part of any leader’s responsibility. If your plan is getting scrutinized, and resources held back, then your boss is not comfortable. It’s not their problem - it’s yours.
Over status, anticipate their needs and solve small challenges before they become big problems. If your team delivers, let your boss know that too, but all smoke and no fire up the chain doesn’t work - people see thorough it and you become known as a kiss up vs. a go to team member.
Keeping cool under pressure and investing in relationships is real work. It’s easy to fall into a trap of criticizing others - I know I have more times than I’d care to admit.
In the heat of the moment, if you find yourself defaulting to blame, detach, assume positive intent, work the problem not the person, and play the long game. Ensure you’re doing right by your team and the people who aren’t in the room. Process may drive efficiency, but relationships are how you get things done without authority.
Invest in relationships.