TL;DR: Rapport is a close and harmonious relationship between people. In order to establish it with your employees, you can follow various strategies: Knowing what is going on, challenging, encouraging, being aware, standing up for them, and some others. As a reward for your efforts, you will have the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations.
No matter if adult or child: The stronger your relationship is, the better you can influence.
More practically: A child will accept a “No” from her dad more readily than from a stranger. Even if she does not like the “No”, she knows by experience that her dad means well, and that, in the long run, she will fare better if she listens to him.
This thought can be transferred to the workplace. As a manager, you don’t always have pleasant news to spread. A Team Geek quote that I like sums it up nicely:
“Sometimes you get to be the tooth fairy, other times you have to be the dentist.”
Maybe you have tell the team that they will be split up and distributed across other teams, and they don’t like that.
Maybe you have to tell somebody that they are not meeting expectations.
Whatever the message, having built a strong relationship, or rapport, with your people can make the difference between an awkward monologue with limited result and a healthy, candid, tough, but productive conversation that the other person will be thankful for.
Rapport is defined as “a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned are “in sync” with each other, understand each other’s feelings or ideas, and communicate smoothly”. So, rapport is clearly something good to have.
But how do you build it?
Like trust, you cannot just fling a magic wand and create it from one day to the next. Building rapport is a long-term game, and it has to be played continuously. And while there is no set-in-stone recipe, there are certain strategies that can be helpful. We will look at some of them below.
1. Know what is going on
I had a boss once who was pretty clueless. Let’s call him Bert.
Bert was supposed to be the Head of Engineering, but you might as well have put a cute little puppy in Bert’s chair, without many people noticing.
Bert did not know what was going on in the engineering department.
He did not know what current projects were under way. He did not know when there was a conflict between certain teams. He did not know when part of the team wanted to use a different technology. And he certainly did not know in which direction the ship should be moving. Maybe needless to say, he did not have regular one-on-ones with any of his direct reports.
Bert was out of touch with his department, and was spending way more time in political battles or at off-topic conferences than with his people.
Don’t get me wrong, Bert was a very nice person. But, understandably, he did not have a lot of rapport with his direct reports, let alone with individual contributors. Sometimes he wanted to be perceived as caring and engaged, and tried to have conversations with technical people when he ran into them. However, if he tried to have a conversation with you, you never quite knew where to start.
He was so far away that it just didn’t occur to you to ask him for help or advice. There was too little common ground. Too many fundamentals were missing.
It was like trying to talk about advanced calculus to a first-grader.
So: Don’t be Bert. Know what is going on. If you can, review people’s code from time to time. Actively take part in discussions. Attend demo meetings where people proudly present their work. If you cannot sit with a lot of people day to day, then have people you trust tell you what is truly going on. Ask questions.
Above all, listen.
At first, it’s rare that people come to you with problems. If they do, however, they have to have the feeling of truly being heard, otherwise they will never do it again.
2. Challenge them
Software developers want to be challenged. They want to learn and to grow. Doing the same thing again and again will not keep them engaged for a long time, but cause them to feel bored and eventually leave.
If you help them find challenging work, they will be grateful for it. When you notice somebody is working below their full potential, give them a special assignment. If you don’t have one ready, encourage them to find a hard problem themselves, maybe one that seems impossible to them right now.
If they talk about what they might try “one day”, challenge them to try it next week or next quarter instead.
One time, one of my employees was carefully mentioning that she would like to give a talk to the other developers at some point. However, she thought she was not ready, because she would have to become more expert first.
I told her that you do not have to be the smartest person in the room to give a talk, and that it is enough to be just one step ahead of some people in the audience.
This encouraged her, and not only did she give a talk to her colleagues some weeks after that, but she was also accepted as a speaker to several conferences over the course of the following year.
3. Encourage them
People who have already read a couple of my posts might know that I value few things as much as encouragement, because it can make a difference like night and day. A lot of people, myself included, need encouragement in addition to challenge.
Encouragement can have a miraculous effect on people’s motivation.
Sometimes, people will be stuck in the stage of “problem admiration”. Something they would like to tackle just seems too big for them. Where should they even start? In what time should they work on that, when they are busy enough as it is?
One trick I have seen work many times is asking someone to take only the first step of a long journey.
For example, one employee told me that he was thinking about preparing a couple of classes on our pretty complex build system and development environment. However, he also said that it was too much work, and he could not find the time to prepare the classes, because he had quite enough to do with his usual work.
So I asked him if he could prepare just the first lesson. I encouraged him to identify the part of the training that would bring the most value, and focus only on that for now.
Also, he would not have to do it all by himself, but he could get help from colleagues, and they could split the work. Viewed from that perspective, the task seemed much more achievable to my employee.
One of a manager’s core functions is being a catalyst: To speed up processes that might have happened anyway, and to enable things to happen that would otherwise only exist in people’s dreams.
Encouragement is one of the main tools of a good catalyst, so use it liberally.
4. Make them aware of opportunities
As a manager or a team lead, you probably have more overview of what is going on in the organization than your employees. You might know if there is a new course coming up, or a new position to be filled, or a new project being started that might be of interest to one of your people.
You can increase your managerial leverage dramatically by serving as a multiplier and spreading this knowledge.
Making sure your people are aware of these opportunities, and seize them, serves a double purpose: Firstly, they will learn from them and become better at their jobs. People who do not keep learning will become a burden at some point, while people who learn continuously can invent the future of your organization.
Secondly, if you make people aware of development and learning opportunities, you show them that you care about their career and their advancement. It sends a clear signal that you are not only interested in getting as much work — or, heaven forbid, as many hours — as possible out of them.
There are few things people want more from a job than training and development, so if you support them in getting that, they will thank you with trust and loyalty.
5. Be somebody they can turn to
There are ups and downs in everybody’s work life and private life. People have trouble at home, people have conflicts at work, people worry about career choices.Sometimes, all they need is somebody to talk to while knowing that whatever they say will be kept confidential. If they get back some advice, that’s a nice bonus on top.
One of my employees once told me how worried he was about his mother’s health, because she was in pretty bad shape. I replied that he should go see her as often as he could, and was understanding when he appeared unfocused from time to time.
Some months later, I had to be pretty tough with him a couple of times, because there were complaints about his behaviour and performance. I did not always feel good about criticizing him, but he later told me that I was totally justified in what I did. He was never really angry with me.
I think this was because he knew that I appreciated him as a person, and, at the end of the day, meant well.
6. Notice when they go beyond expectations
Have you ever finished something you were really proud of, and you wanted to share with others what you did, but nobody cared?
This is among the most frustrating work experiences possible. What is almost as bad is when your colleagues notice and give you credit, but your boss takes everything you do for granted, or worse, has no idea what outstanding work you do in the first place.
When this happens, maybe you will once again do the best work you are capable of next time.
Maybe another time.
However, when it seems to be irrelevant what level of quality you deliver, sooner or later, most of us will lower their standards, and stop going the extra mile to exceed expectations. They will realize that their boss does not care about the quality of their work, and they will understand another thing: Their boss is not interested in their personal development, either.
Otherwise, she would hold them accountable to high standards.
7. Notice when they go below expectations
This is a corollary of the previous point, but I think it deserves to be mentioned separately. When your people deliver low-quality work, and you know they are capable of more, you should point it out and ask them to improve their work.
They might not like it at that particular moment, because it means more work for them, but the message you send is twofold, and very much in their favour:
- You expect them to deliver quality work
- You trust their ability to deliver quality work: “I know you can do this better.”
One of my biggest takeaways from Peopleware was that people become severely demotivated and can even become depressed if they have to deliver work that is below their own quality standards over a long time. If people walk into that trap because of (perceived) time pressure or laziness, you as their manager should call them out and keep them from doing it. Sooner or later, they will appreciate that you don’t want them to be short-order cooks, and be grateful for your strictness.
8. Prepare the stage for them
Technical people can be a rather shy bunch, who do not enjoy being the center of attention and avoid the spotlight. However, it can be important to do some marketing within the organization, so that people get the attention and credit they deserve.
If your employees are too modest do to that marketing by themselves, why don’t you ask them to do it? This gives them an excuse to lose their modesty. If they still don’t want to, you can do it for them. Examples might be:
- If they deliver a milestone of outstanding quality, make sure they publish it through the appropriate channels, like your company social network, blog, podcast, or simply through an email newsletter. If they don’t want to do it, you can make their outstanding work known yourself.
- If somebody becomes an expert on a certain topic, ask them to give a presentation to colleagues. Maybe the presentation even evolves into a conference talk.
- Make sure your employee prepares the presentation thoroughly by agreeing on a rehearsal date some time before the actual date. It is only a little more of a time investment for you, but it sends a strong signal how serious you are about your employee’s development.
- At the presentation date, get on stage and introduce your employee before they start. This signals that you are proud of them and that you support what they do.
Preparing the stage for your employees can help them overcome inappropriate modesty, and advance their career faster. They will thank you for it with increased loyalty.
9. Stand up for them
Alvy Ray Smith and Ed Catmull are true role models to me.
When there was no Pixar yet, there was Lucasfilm’s Computer Animation Division instead. Some in Lucasfilm’s management doubted the potential of this division, and wanted to cut costs.
Smith and Catmull, the division heads, were asked to provide some names of people to lay off. They refused, postponed, asked for more time. When they were pressed even harder a couple of days later, they finally provided a short list with just two names on it.
They were their own names, Alvy Ray Smith and Ed Catmull.
They did not even talk about this to their people, but it got out, of course, and caused a tremendous loyalty boost with their subordinates.
Take the blame, and pass on the praise: This is a good guideline for managers. If you ask somebody to try something risky, and they fail, it’s your fault. If you ask somebody to take a shortcut to make a deadline, and something goes wrong, it’s your fault. Own up to it, and shield your employee from criticism.
Moreover, if there is organizational chaos going on that might affect your team or department, it is your job to be a spokesperson for your people. You might not be able to prevent every unwanted change, but you want to be able to tell them that you did your best.
10. Know about their private situation (careful though!)
There are different opinions on this, but: Knowing what is going on in your people’s life outside of work can help you build rapport with them.
Talking about private life should be carefully dosed depending on the employee, though. Some people readily share a lot about their family, the dog they bought, the car that broke down, the parties they went to, the wife who is unhappy with the relocation, or the activities they pursue outside of work. Other people do not want to share anything.
Both is fine.
It might be your employee who does not want to talk about these things, or it might be you. That’s all right. When somebody brings up non-work topics that you are not comfortable talking about, tell them.
However, if both are fine talking about certain non-work related topics from time to time, these conversations provide a valuable opportunity. They allow you to prove that you see the other person as a human, not as a resource.
In addition to Dan Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, some people argue that Relatedness is a critical factor that most people need to unleash their full potential. Getting to know a person beyond what they have to say about work is a good way to create exactly that relatedness.
When it comes to private topics, keep in mind that it’s about showing interest, not about finding out every touchy detail. Showing interest means remembering what people tell you (you do take notes in one-on-ones, don’t you?) and asking empathic questions if you have the feeling they want to talk more about the topic.
However, if you ask “How was your weekend?” and all you get is a meagre “It was fine.”, with no sign of willingness to share, then stop right there and ask no further. Respecting boundaries can also help you build rapport.
There are many ways to build rapport. You don’t have to practice all of them all the time with all your colleagues, and some of them work better with a given person than others.
Of course, none of this is rocket science, but rather common sense and basic human psychology. Moreover, all of the points outlined above follow rather naturally from one common assumption:
About your organization, your work environment, and your colleagues. If you care, you will naturally want to know what is going on around you. You will naturally have your people’s interest in mind, and thus challenge, promote, and encourage them. You will naturally be there for them in difficult times, and you will stand up for them when the going gets tough.
Therefore, caring about the people who work with you is one of the most important reasons you should become a manager. If you want to know more reasons, read on.
This blog post took me about 5 hours to write.