How to Build Strong Professional Relationships on Campus

Why strong professional relationships are essential

Working in higher education can be exceptionally challenging because of the systems in place, reporting structure, and organizational culture. Technically, the hierarchy is very clear, but in reality, it can be more dysfunctional than reality TV!

Some issues call for a top-down management style while others require shared governance and foster expectations of a bottom-up approach. Whose opinion matters? Everyone’s.

Employees at all levels of the organization have a voice and have power. It is wise to show them respect and build loyalty. To be successful in higher education, leaders need to demonstrate a high level of emotional intelligence and ability to prevent conflict.

What happen if you don't make the time to build strong relationships or don't know how to do it effectively

I see college Presidents asked by their Board of Trustees to take an early retirement; managers being told their employment contract won’t be renewed; and administrators feeling under attack by a union or faculty threatening a vote of no confidence.

I wish I could say they all deserve to be fired because they are incompetent but it’s far from the truth. Most often, the issue is poor interpersonal relationships.

Things get personal, people get pissed off, egos are bruised, morale drops, and heads are about to roll.

Under a heavy workload, much pressure, deadlines, constant interruptions, and workplace drama, many administrators get overwhelmed. They can’t deal effectively with disagreements and don’t have the energy or know-how to foster quality professional relationships. They have good intentions and work hard but if they don’t address interpersonal issues, things go from bad to worse.

Don’t let that happen to you.

How to do it

To build strong professional relationships on your campus, doing a good job isn’t enough. You need to position yourself as a trustworthy leader and build loyalty. Here are some tips on where to start to make it happen.

1.    Meet people’s needs.

If you are serious about building trust and empowering people to do their best, you have to make an effort to get to know them. Don’t assume people have the same needs you do. Ask them what they need to feel supported and be effective.

For example, some individuals need more guidance on how to do things and want to work with you closely. Others would feel micromanaged and prefer to be free to use their creativity to accomplish goals.

Pay attention to what motivates your coworkers. Some are competitive and like to work alone. Others love to feel part of something greater and need to feel a personal connection with others to thrive.

Some people need a sense of security and prefer a predictable routine and abundant information to feel prepared at all times. Others like variety and surprises to keep things interesting and remain engaged.

Some people need you to reassure them, make them feel appreciated, praise them, and give positive reinforcement very regularly. Others aren’t looking for approval but want opportunities to be challenged and grow so that they can meet their own needs and expectations.

The list is endless but you get my point: understand the person’s needs and do the best you can to get their needs met.

2.    Take interest in their interests.

I like to ask new clients what they do to build rapport with their coworkers. Typically, they have one or two go-to subjects that they use with everyone. For example, they may ask about the person’s family. It is a good idea if you are speaking with a mother who loves to talk about her kids but not a good topic if the person prefers to keep her private life private. Family can be a sensitive topic. If the employee never mentions their family and has no photos displayed in their office, don’t ask. It could be an unwelcome intrusion.

Instead, ask them what they love, what makes them happy, or ask them to tell you something good that happened recently. Let them tell you what’s important to them. Don’t fake being interested in things that don’t interest you because you will look manipulative and untrustworthy. Surely, if you engage in a conversation you can find something in common and create a genuine bond.

That being said, asking new questions can seem unnatural at first. You may want to observe the person and pay attention to what they do and say without being probed. That is a powerful skill to develop.

3.    Make them feel valued and heard.

Never EVER rush or dismiss someone or what they have to say. You don’t need to be an expert in neuro-linguistic programming to understand that people have different ways to process information and express themselves. If your style is opposite from the other person’s, consider making some adjustments.

For example, my natural style is to think fast and speak fast. Ten years ago, I didn’t know what I know now, and people who spoke slowly drove me crazy. I didn’t have much patience to wait for them to articulate their thoughts and my frustration was palpable. Make sure you don’t do that.

Now, when I speak with someone who is more kinesthetic (instead of visual like me), I slow down. As much as possible, I mirror and match which means that I observe their voice, tone, speed, choice of word, and body language, and match them without looking too obvious. It is a very effective way to build rapport. Contact me if that is something you would like to learn.

If that seems too complicated, at least remember to make people feel heard and understood. When you listen, truly listen to understand. Don’t tune them out and use the time to think about what you are going to say next. Be present. Repeat what you have heard to make sure you are on the same page.

4.    Show integrity.

It is common for leaders to have integrity as evidenced by their values and choices when they have to make important decisions. They mean well. They have a clear conscience, but somehow, their integrity is being questioned. Why?

When their intentions and their behavior are out of alignment, it is difficult to trust them. Think about it. If you make promises and don’t keep them, you teach people not to believe what you say. You train them to expect to be disappointed.

Even if you hold the highest values in your heart, what you do matters more than what you say.

Your disorganization or procrastination can make people feel like they don’t matter to you. If something unexpected comes up and you can’t keep your word, at the very least, communicate, apologize, and propose an alternative! I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t have people’s back, they won’t have yours.

Ignoring, dismissing, or forgetting shouldn’t be considered normal. If you want loyalty from your staff, faculty, administrators and other stakeholders, you absolutely must treat them with respect and show integrity – always! Be consistent. Being a positive role model “some of the time” won’t cut it. Someone is always watching, so remember to be professional.

5.    Watch your attitude and request feedback from others.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself. If you are critical, frustrated, uncooperative, or defensive, you’d better take a deep breath and change your attitude before you say or do something that will damage professional relationships.

It is common for achievers to move up in administration because they have high standards that push them to excellence. Unfortunately, their drive sometimes comes with a strong desire to be right at all times, which can make the person off-putting and more likely to face conflict.

I see administrators who seek perfection and have their sense of identity attached to their work performance. It makes it very hard for others to relate to them, feel safe with them, and be loyal to them. Trying too hard backfires. Give yourself a break and give others a break. People want to see your human and compassionate sides.

Request feedback and input from others. Don’t wait for your evaluation to be due to start paying attention to how you are perceived. Strive for lifelong learning and continuous improvement. Suggestions from others give you a chance to reconsider old choices and behaviors and improve if you want to. Concerns are easier to address when communicated in a casual conversation than a hurtful memo or upsetting evaluation. Be proactive!

I am in no way implying that you should be a pleaser. I can’t stand being around pleasers. It is difficult to respect them because they don’t have the courage to show who they are, we don’t know where they stand on any issue, and they generally lack self-respect.

Your responsibility is not to please everyone but to be a great leader. Be someone people look up to. And when it is time to make a decision that can be unpopular (e.g. budget cuts), you’ll be glad to have built loyalty and trust.

People who respect you will be more likely to support you in tough times.

I hope I convinced you to pay great attention to interpersonal relationships. They can make or break you. If you experience high stress, worry, or conflict, I urge you to address the problems while they are small and easily fixed. You can’t afford to bury your head in the sand and hope problems will go away. When ignored, conflict tends to blow out of proportion.

Avoidance is your worst enemy.

If you’d like to speak with me (by phone) about your situation, click here to make an appointment. If none of the times available work for you, email me your availability and I'll do my very best to accommodate you. It's never too late. But don't wait any longer. There is a lot at stake. 

About the author: Since 2010 Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits. Audrey is the go-to Success Coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.