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Henley Leadership Group Blog

High Performers Often Make This One Big Mistake


Previously published on Forbes

High performers are often like stars – they shine bright, but they can also burn out. What is the one sure way to derail your own high performance? By paying more attention to getting stuff done than to building relationships.

I have to admit, at the start of my career, I didn’t get this. I wanted to prove myself by getting massive amounts of work done. I was tireless. I came into the office early and stayed late, often eating lunch at my desk. I didn’t really talk to other people — that would have been a distraction and, worse, a waste of time. Plus, I didn’t like office politics or gossip. So I was "heads-down".

The challenge was that no one really liked working with me. I was always trying to prove myself and not really engaged as a team member. As Rebecca Zucker writes in an HBR article, Why Highly Efficient Leaders Fail, “Highly efficient leaders often lose their focus on people due to a limiting belief that more people-focused activities will slow them down and impede their ability to execute, and to ultimately be successful.”

 Why do relationships matter so much?

Because most of the movement that happens in an organization is the result of the relationships you have cultivated. People know you, have faith and trust in you. You are promoted not just because of what you produce, but because others have confidence in your skill and ability to go to that next level of leadership. And for this to happen, you have to have trust-based relationships with others.

Relationships also matter because we never know what is going to happen next. Your colleague today may be your boss tomorrow. You may be up this year and down next. It’s the people and the relationships you cultivate along the way that make this journey more enjoyable. You have friends who cheer you on when you are on the upswing and pick you up on the downswing. And they expect you to do the same for them. Beyond cranking out deliverables, you get to work with people you like and enjoy.

I love the way Frank Molanario described it in his Forbes piece, In Leadership, Relationships Matter Most: “Without relationship, there is no extra effort. Day after day, people do not come to work for a time clock. They come to work for a person. And for them to give anything other than the minimum, they must have relationships with that person.”

But you have to spend time and energy on relationships. In other words, you have to lift your head up and pay attention to people.

Why Relationships Matter When You’re a Leader

Consider Samantha, military trained and highly efficient. She prided herself on getting things done. She could kick ass and take names better than anybody. What she wasn’t so great at was cultivating strong relationships, in her personal or professional life. This lack of skill became most evident when she stepped into the role of CEO.

In the CEO seat, relationships are everything. You only get stuff done through others. You don’t move stuff, you move people. Samantha quickly realized that she had some serious skill-building to do. She started by learning to listen and to paraphrase and mirror back what she was hearing. And so, her senior leaders began to trust her. They knew she was listening and could understand their perspective. This was the starting place for Samantha’s new competency in relationships.

Being a good leader isn’t about your results and your sales and your customers — that’s all you-focused, and we all know that narcissistic managers are no good. Being a good leader means caring about the people you’re leading. Sure, that seems obvious. Every leader must communicate that they care about their people. But caring is about actions, not just words.

The impact on the workplace is significant: When people feel safe in their work environment, when they feel that it’s safe for them to show up and fully be themselves, they’re more productive. They know it’s OK for them to bring their concerns, their strengths, their vulnerabilities and their creativity. Trust me, you want this. And it’s exactly why you ought to work hard to show you care. It’s how your people will know that you have their back and that you will stand by them.

How to Improve Your Work Relationships

The two most important things you can do to improve your work relationships and show you care are:

  1. Get personal. Show interest in people’s lives. Ask questions and really listen. Remember important information, such as birthdays, anniversary dates, the names of family members, and important events in the lives of your team. Write them down, if that helps. But above all, make a personal connection with every member of your team. Stretch yourself to learn something new about someone every day. Meet all new team members as they come on board. If this puts you outside your comfort zone, that’s OK. Stretch yourself and make the point to do it anyway. The end result will be a more engaged team.
  2. Be proactive and brave. Identify two people at work you are intrigued by and want to have a relationship with. Extend yourself and ask for time with them. Be interested, not interesting. Ask good questions and listen, listen, listen. The risk, of course, is rejection. They may not be interested in having a relationship with you. Don’t worry: Rejection isn’t fatal. It won’t kill you. But if you never try, you will never succeed.

Great leaders get stuff done and they pay a great deal of attention to people and relationships. They have the skill to empower and inspire others. They listen and learn from the people around them. This is the art of leadership. It’s not just about being efficient and getting things done. It’s about cultivating relationships and encouraging the messy, inspiring, awesome people you have the privilege of working with.