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Navigate peer relationships while climbing the ladder

Right after finishing my law studies, I started an internship in a law firm. We were seven from all over the country; we worked long hours and were inseparable outside of work. Bound by our entry-level rank and modest budget, we ate lunch daily, often at the Taco Bell across the street. After work we complained to the local dive bar.

Behind these relationships simmered a darker reality. We knew that after 10 weeks, only three or four of us would be offered a job. It was just the way it worked. We were colleagues — and competitors.

These types of stressful situations are common in peer-to-peer working relationships and grow exponentially in risk and complexity as you approach the C-suite. They are both a puzzle and a paradox. The very people you need to collaborate with to get your job done and affect your job satisfaction and joy are also your competitors in a game of Survivor.

The fact is that the workplace is one of the few environments in which we are strength in relationships. We must work together in a friendly and efficient way to achieve the objectives of the organization. And if we are ambitious or stay long enough in an organization, most of our peers end up becoming our bosses or subordinates.

So how can we effectively navigate these potentially messy and critically important relationships? Here are three strategies, based on my experience as an executive and now as a coach with executive clients.

Don’t expect friendship.

Several years ago, a peer and I envisioned different SVP roles in the same department. I considered her a friend. We’d had lunch together for years, shared parenting issues, been publicly hailed as the company’s top 20 performers the year before, and were navigating a massive reorganization with a new C-suite boss.

I naturally didn’t like our new boss, but my colleague had obviously become a favorite. Going to yoga class, seeking advice, I confided, “I’m having a hard time establishing a relationship with our new boss. She smiled broadly: “I don’t know why; I think she’s great! and clarified that the conversation was over and not to be revisited. This exchange and subsequent interactions indicated that she was not going to risk her new status to help me. It was the end of the work friendship, and after waiting for my time for a year, I left for a management position in another company.

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While it’s important to establish cordial working relationships, there’s a limit to the amount of healthy emotional bonding as you move up the corporate ladder. Keep him friendly (like remembering his partner’s or children’s name), but maintain boundaries. Excessive sharing of personal information (such as religious or political beliefs) can cause conflict in the relationship, leading to awkwardness and effective job performance. Don’t think of work as a place where your basic emotional needs are met; invest in the relationships and organizations you care about outside of your business.

Manage laterally.

When you are considered for senior management ranks, leaders will approach your peers and ask for their perspective. This is often an informal dialogue, usually not recognized as part of the formal performance appraisal process. Some organizations, including Amazon, have even changed their performance model to give more credit to peer feedback.

But with our peers, we don’t always “manage” or act on our best behavior as we would with our boss or direct reports. Our peers are therefore the group most likely to experience, observe and know our weaknesses. “Peers have the best read on you — and are the harshest critics, because they’re on your level,” John Horton, an organizational psychologist, told me. In his years of experience conducting workplace assessments, he has found that we are more likely to display confusing leadership behaviors towards our peers.

This matches my own experience with 360 reviews for clients. For example, one of my clients—despite her objective sales numbers—was barred from a leadership position due to negative feedback from her absorbed peers at two levels within the leadership team. It took extensive feedback interviews, six months of coaching, and the development of a perception management strategy to undo the damage, and she finally received the promotion she deserved.

To understand your impact on your peers, ask them. Take the time to regularly check in and find out how you and your team’s actions are affecting the achievement of their Goals. Find common ground to support them and activate the norm of reciprocity – the concept that people help those who help them. Making peer inquiry a routine habit can surface opportunities and problems early, giving you a chance to cement the relationship and course-correct, if needed.

Sometimes just affirming others does the trick. One of my clients was struggling with a key peer who barely recognized him. Working together, we agreed that he would come up with something worthwhile that this co-worker came up with at every executive meeting and would visibly agree – through comments or body language. After a few months, her peer asked her out for coffee to get to know him better and that launched a viable relationship.

Sharpen your political skills.

Peers serve critical informational purposes – they often possess valuable knowledge that can alert you to what is going on in the organization and why.

But as Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford University professor and renowned authority on organizational power, told me, peer relationships are “a mixed-motive game.” Put bluntly, “the best and most politically effective peers will be able to successfully conceal their true agendas and actions. So the first thing to do with your peers is, as much as possible, to find out what they are doing,” he says.

When I was part of a company’s leadership team, my colleague who was our CHRO was always tight-lipped about everything, only sharing what was absolutely necessary with her peers about her business plans. You never really knew what she was doing, or if she really supported your initiatives. However, she was closely aligned with our President and made sure his goals were executed. It paid off – when he suddenly left to become CEO of a bigger, more prestigious company, he took her with him to lead HR.

To make sure you don’t get left behind, candidly assess the behaviors that are being rewarded in your organization. Examine who is being promoted and why. Be strategic and negotiate partnerships with supportive colleagues, finding common ground to advance mutually beneficial agendas. In a culture with sharp elbows, you may need to be more careful.

It also pays to manage emotions and cultivate a straight face. According to Pfeffer, “Getting along, let alone succeeding in the world, often requires a great deal of inauthenticity and self-regulation.” As you approach the higher levels of the organization, you often cannot let go of emotions such as irritation, anger or fatigue without running the risk of affecting morale, being misinterpreted or damage relationships.

Executive leadership relies heavily, even informally, on the perception your peers have of you for promotion opportunities – whether they are fair and accurate or not. Ambitious professionals will consider the strategies shared above for navigating these complex relationships when accessing the C-suite.

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