How to Be a Relationship Management Star


By Lindsay Northon, M.A. August 1, 2016

What's your star sign? An astrologically inclined friend recently told me that Libras like myself crave balance and dislike conflict. Her admittedly fair assessment got me thinking about the myriad of factors at play when I interact with colleagues. While most of us don't rely on the stars for guidance in building relationships—astrology is an art, not a science, even if it occasionally rings true—all HR professionals can become stars in the workplace by considering those job-related factors.

On any given day, an HR professional can interact with C-suite executives, employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, local community members, representatives of the government and more. I have mentioned before that the work environment is full of differences among individuals; how you adapt your approach to building positive relationships adds another layer of variation.

How do these differences manifest themselves? You may have a tech supplier, for instance, who prefers to do all business with you over e-mail, while one of your external consultants is very hands-on. You may know an exceptional candidate who was passed over because he is shy and a shareholder perceived as haughty for caring only about an exceptional return on investment. The point is that the needs and the wants of these stakeholder groups and the individuals within them vary. Gaining their trust is a critical part of HR's role, and the best approach isn't one-size-fits-all.

A high degree of proficiency in Relationship Management can help HR professionals create a more productive work environment. In fact, SHRM's 2016 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement study confirmed that employees' relationships with co-workers contribute significantly to high engagement levels. Other studies show how the employee-supervisor relationship is important for greater team cohesion, performance and feelings of inclusion.

But back to becoming an HR star. Building stakeholder relationships is not as complicated as understanding black holes or the Big Bang Theory. Just place the Relationship Management competency at the center of your solar system, and with a little practice and a lot of patience, you'll shine.

Here are a few tips:

  • Use different modes to communicate different information. The 21st century workplace is chock-full of electronic mail and instant messages, but you can be more than a screen name and a phone number. Skype with faraway business partners. Send a handwritten thank-you letter to an external client. Deliver good news to employees face to face instead of reserving in-person meetings only for communicating bad news.
  • Share knowledge. Transparency is a big topic in HR, so don't be opaque when managing relationships. Build trust and credibility by sharing internal knowledge about what's going on throughout the organization. Become more relatable and easier to talk to by sharing some knowledge about yourself, whether work-related or (appropriately) personal. Tell a few stories about your HR journey.
  • Consider potential overlaps with other competencies. A relationship could get off to a rocky start if you're not aware of how you're trying to build it and in what setting. With some stakeholders, additional competencies may apply—particularly Communication and Global & Cultural Effectiveness—so lean on them for support. For example, is it typical for a customer to shake hands when you're meeting for the first time? Is it disrespectful to make eye contact when presenting your business case? Careful consideration of such factors is more likely to result in a successful relationship anywhere in the world.
  • Be mindful of body language. Not all communication is verbal. Be aware of physical, visual and other nonverbal cues—yours and those of your audience. Do the people you talk to roll their eyes, clench their jaws or seem to drift into space? These are signs that they may be disengaged or upset. When a client comes to you with a concern, are you persuasive at offering solutions and acknowledging all stakeholders? Try leaning in, nodding or making eye contact (with consideration of cultural background and what is appropriate for the situation, of course).
  • Go the extra mile. Take action to make people feel valued. Get to know who they are outside of work and what makes them tick. Ask about their hobbies and how their kids are doing. Find out if they need to leave early to bring a pet to the vet. If they like pizza, suggest the new place nearby. HR professionals can get a lot of mileage out of going the extra mile.
  • Remember the golden rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Need I say more?

Lindsay Northon, M.A., is specialist for HR competencies at SHRM.


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