The Kind of Relationships You Need to Grow Your Career

The great sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, warns against the toll an ever-changing society takes on the relationships we naturally tend to form with others.  “In a liquid modern life there are no permanent bonds, and any that we take up for a time must be tied loosely so that they can be untied again, as quickly and effortlessly as possible, when circumstances change—as they surely will in our liquid modern society, over and over again.”  No wonder we are sometimes confused about the kind and quality of relationships we need in professional environments to grow our careers and achieve high levels of satisfaction over a long time-horizon.   Often, people will describe colleagues with whom they have some affinity as “friends.”  “Oh, we’ve worked together for two years—we’re good friends!”  In most cases, however, the people you work with are not your friends.  Friendship, by its very nature, is personal, intimate, and rare.  And, perhaps ironically, friendship at work can actually impede professional growth.

Grow your career relationships

Maintain Professional Distance

As social media seeks to erode barriers between personal and professional life, it becomes more important than ever to act against this tide and learn to cultivate “professional distance.”  Contrary to its name, professional distance does not ask us to become distant or aloof from one another; only that we respect the natural boundaries that form through constructive professional relationships.  Here is the critical difference: professional relationships forge within a hierarchy of power, payment, and implications for future opportunities—even among peers.  None of these factors is present between friends.  The deepest and most rewarding relationships with colleagues—whether with peers or managers—form because you have shared aspirations and values about the work.  You develop a mutual respect for each other’s work, and a certain chemistry forms in doing the work together.  Let the work itself connect you; let the work become the galvanizing force behind your decisions, your actions, your output.  Then, the relationships that form around your work will be more substantial, more lasting, and ultimately, more relevant to growing your career than conventional friendships.

Don’t Ask for a Mentor

Mentoring is the oldest form of learning, long predating schools and universities, even medieval guilds.  In ancient times, wise orators and philosophers would mentor and guide young protégés in developing their craft.  Fast forward to the 20th century, where American companies sought to recreate this relationship through corporate mentoring, often with mixed results.  In the 21st century, some millennials ask their managers to assign them a mentor, thinking that doing so will give them a leg up in developing their careers, getting ahead, etc.  And indeed, mentoring can close a certain gap that education and experience alone often cannot.  But in fact, real mentoring is a lot like real friendship—it just doesn’t happen that often.  And, also similar to friendship, when forced under contrived circumstances, these mentoring relationships tend to fail.  Rather than searching for a mentor outright, search for shared aspirations and values with more experienced colleagues about the work you are trying to create.  Therein lies the chemistry for a mentoring dynamic to form naturally.  And be patient—this relationship tends to grow slowly over time as shared interests become more apparent.  Also recognize that a mentor/protégé relationship is two-way and should be beneficial to both of you—if it’s all about the protégé taking, taking, taking, the relationship is unlikely to endure.

Seek Negative Feedback

Millennials are known for their hunger of instant, frequent feedback, in part because they grew up in a tech-enabled environment where this kind of feedback was normal.  But when we step back and look critically at this approach, mostly the kind of feedback we see is of the positive, shallow sort.  Likes, thumbs up, and “great job!” are not only unhelpful to your long-term career growth, but deeply unsatisfying.  What you don’t know can and will hurt you, especially in a world where people tend to share negative feedback with everyone but the person of concern.  Distinguish yourself from your peers with the courage to ask for negative feedback.  During your next one-on-one with your manager, ask about your blind spots.  “What am I missing?”  “What am I failing to see that’s affecting my work or relationships?”  “What is holding me back from a next-level role?”  “What feedback would you give me if you weren’t afraid of demoralizing me?”  Asking questions like these puts you in a vulnerable position, and shows that you possess the maturity to manage this vulnerability.  It also creates the foundation for a deeper, more honest relationship with your manager, which can only help your career prospects.

Bauman grounds us in another important distinction. “Unlike ‘real relationships,’ virtual relationships are easy to enter and exit.  They look smart and clean, feel easy to use, when compared with the heavy, slow-moving, messy real stuff.”  But it is precisely because real relationships—whether personal or professional—are heavy and slow moving that they offer more mutual benefit over the long arc of our lives. 

Wash Post Life is the people side of The Washington Post focusing on stewarding a culture of innovation, ownership, speed, collaboration, and diversity within a rapidly growing media and media technology company.

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