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The Decline Of The Trusted Professional Relationship — and Six Steps You Can Take to Reverse It


by Andrew Sobel, coauthor of Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships

We live in a low-trust world. Over the last several decades, nearly every measure of trust has declined. What’s more, rates of loneliness have doubled in the last 50 years in the United States, with almost half of surveyed adults saying they feel lonely or left out. Not only is the trust deficit harmful for our health and wellness (both physical and mental), it wreaks havoc on our professional relationships. This problem, which hurts both career and organizational success, has grown in tandem with the rise of the Internet — and it’s crept in so insidiously that we may not have realized it was happening.

The ‘normalizing’ of digital relationships has masked the weakness of many professionals’ face-to-face relationship-building skills. This is especially true for younger professionals, who have grown up on a steady diet of online ‘friends’ and connections, and are less schooled in the art of face-to-face relationship-building. Younger professionals in their 20s and early 30s often lament a lack of influence and recognition within their organizations, but they are not building the key stakeholder relationships that give you those things.

The deterioration of our working relationships undermines our careers and the companies we work for. We feel loyal to people only when there’s a real personal connection. Without that, you’re a tradable commodity, and may very well be the first to be pushed out the door when times get tough. We all need a small group of trusted relationships if we’re to get our ideas recognized and supported, become a successful leader, collaborate and innovate effectively, and serve our clients the way they deserve to be treated.

Organizational leadership is rarely vested in the lone genius, a.k.a. Steve Jobs, but is more often founded on a network of trusted relationships you develop throughout your career. To lead, you need followers and colleagues who trust you.

Most of us are aware that we need trusted professional relationships. In my Global Relationships study — which surveyed 2,700 professionals, including 1,000 Millennials — 91 percent of respondents said such relationships are “very” or “extremely” important to career success. Unfortunately, only 30 percent said they were “very satisfied” with their professional relationships.

As we move into the future, trusting relationships will only become more vital. Artificial intelligence and automation are likely to swallow up most routine jobs, and knowledge-based jobs aren’t far behind them. The only ‘safe’ occupations are those that depend on activities humans are better at than computers — like collaboration, creative problem solving, and other soft skills. All of these require strong interpersonal relationships with your manager, colleagues, mentors, and other influencers both inside and outside of your organization.

So how can we combat the decline of trust and build more and better professional relationships? Here are a few suggestions:

Think eagles, not gnats (Aim for quality, not quantity).

As we seek to form professional relationships, we now think that more is better. The trappings of the digital age only encourage that mindset. Yet counterintuitive as it may seem, focusing a majority of our relational investments on a smaller number of valuable connections is far more effective. Ideally, we need to develop and nurture 15 to 25 trusted relationships.

Increasingly, our culture focuses on developing large numbers of social media connections. These are more like a cloud of busy gnats than a flight of eagles who are powerfully moving your career forward. It’s better to deepen the relationships that really matter. My research shows that in most careers, there are a handful of relationships that have a disproportionate impact on your success — and for which you, in turn, can really make a difference.

There’s the example of one of my clients, a highly successful investment banker, who told me that nearly one-quarter of all his lifetime revenue had come through one law firm partner he had developed a close relationship with early in his career.

Follow the relationship recipe.

There’s a process that should be followed when creating and sustaining great professional relationships:

Build Rapport – Understand Their Agenda – Add Value – Connect Personally – Stay in Touch

This process is not linear — you don’t do it once and then stop. Rather, you repeat these steps many times, continuing to strengthen the relationship. Trust is a natural outcome of doing these steps well.

Assess your relationship IQ.

What skills do you need to work on? There are certain attitudes and skills you need to cultivate in order to build solid, trust-based relationships. Here’s nine of them: generosity, curiosity, rapport, power questions, empathy, trust, agenda helping, influence, and relationship healing.

These skills need to be exercised in a balanced manner. If you demonstrate too little rapport, for instance, you’ll seem aloof and distant and won’t make a connection. Too much rapport and you’ll come across as an inauthentic glad-hander.

Stop telling and start asking…

Often in an attempt to seem smart or to impress others, we are tempted to give nonstop advice or spout everything we know about a subject. Squelch that instinct. Asking builds relationships while telling can create resistance. Learn to ask the right questions and you’ll gain access to new information, uncover solutions, and understand what’s really important to the other person. You’ll show that you’re curious and eager to learn from them. Ultimately you’ll have higher-impact conversations and be seen as more likeable and trustworthy.

Early in my consulting career, I was tasked with engaging a famous business school professor known for his large ego and for being impossible to work with. At the beginning of our lunch, I simply asked, “I’m curious; how did you get your start?” and then listened for two hours as the professor talked. I barely said a word — and the professor glowingly told Sobel’s boss the next day that Sobel was “really smart” and that they had had a “fantastic conversation.”

… and really listen to the answers.

We don’t always appreciate just how powerful deep, empathetic listening can be in building relationships. And while most of us think we’re already good listeners, the truth is we probably aren’t. Good listening means getting yourself and your ego out of the equation, and not trying to outshine the other person.

This doesn’t mean you should sit there silently the whole time. If you just listen and never say anything, the speaker may feel stranded. Paraphrase and synthesize as you go along. Affirm that you’ve understood what they’re saying, ask follow-up questions, and sprinkle in your own thoughts and feelings about the subject. That’s the recipe for a rewarding conversation.

Get intentional about building trusted relationships.

These powerful business relationships don’t just happen. They must be deliberately cultivated and maintained. It means putting forth the effort to really get to know the other person, checking up on them, trying to help them, and genuinely caring about making their life better. This is why we must make our professional relationships—actually all relationships — a priority. I recommend listing your “critical few” relationships — the 15 to 25 that can really make a difference — and developing a staying-in-touch plan for each one.

One of my oldest and most important relationships began over 30 years ago. This individual, later in his career, became the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies. He has introduced me to many, many other top executives over the years.

Life is complicated and it’s easy for us to put off relationship development until ‘things settle down’ or we have more free time. The problem is, that day never comes. This is how people lose touch, and how relationships atrophy. You have to carve some time out of your schedule, put it on your to-do list, and commit to making it happen. Relationships rarely stay the same — they either deepen and grow, or they wither on the vine.

The effort is always worth it.

We simply don’t thrive on hundreds of superficial contacts. In business and in life, we flourish on a handful of trusted relationships. We owe it to ourselves and to those around us to start building relationships that matter.


Andrew Sobel is the most widely published author in the world on client loyalty and the capabilities required to build trusted business relationships, and recently published “Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships“. His first book, the bestselling “Clients for Life“, defined an entire genre of business literature about client loyalty. In addition to “Power Relationships“, his other books include “Power Questions“, “Making Rain” and the award-winning “All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships“.


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