I was giving a speech to the leaders of a large teaching hospital. We were talking about conflict and difficult relationships when one of the directors of an in-patient unit shared her frustration with one of the leaders from the emergency department. “She just calls up and demands that I make space to take one of her patients. She’s so abrupt and rude and she expects me to drop everything to solve her problem.”

Now, I could take this story in several different directions. I could talk about stable healthcare funding or improving patient flow…if I knew anything about those issues. I could talk about the importance and scarcity of empathy, but I do that often. So, instead of sharing what I said to the leader in the room, I want to talk about the opportunity for the person on the other end of the phone line. The person who didn’t get the benefit of the doubt when she needed it. Actually, I don’t want to talk about a random person in a hospital you’ll probably never visit, I want to talk about you and the relationships you could be building today so they’re there for you when you need them.

Without Trust

There will be a moment in your job when you are wholly dependent on the assistance of a colleague for your success, a moment of vulnerability. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. If you’re a self-reliant type, you don’t love asking for help, so you do it as rarely as possible. If you are asking for help it’s because the issue is really important and you’re likely feeling some pressure.

You pick up the phone and dial your colleague.

You don’t realize it, but the heightened arousal that’s brought you to the point of reaching out for help is likely evident in your voice. Maybe that arousal comes across as impatience, or scatteredness, or even condescension. If the person on the other end of the line doesn’t know you, doesn’t trust you, you’re probably getting zero benefit of the doubt.

I remember a particularly strident administrative assistant in the Psychology Department where I did my graduate training posted a sign that said, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” This was not the first assistant I was going to approach if I needed something in a crisis or any other time for that matter.

Given your own mental state, you’re likely to be unaware of how you’re coming across and therefore quite taken aback when the person responds negatively. Play that out…you think you’re making a perfectly reasonable, seriously important request in a rational and reasonable tone and what you get back is not what you were looking for either in their sense of urgency, willingness to help, or even basic courtesy. Now you’re incensed and the whole interaction is going south.

Back it Up

The whole thing started on the wrong foot when your colleague heard a voice they didn’t recognize. New phone, who dis? (To be fair, it might even have been before the phone rang if your organization has ongoing friction between different departments, but that’s for another post.) The difference at that moment between the person hearing someone they know and trust and just another person asking them to do just another task is a world of difference. The secret is being a voice they know, not a voice they don’t know.

Or, as the Chinese proverb says, “Dig the well before you are thirsty.”

Build Trust

Now is the time to dig the well, to build the relationships that you’ll need later. There are different options open to you depending on your time horizon. Try a few of the following approaches:


When you have months to build relationships, you have the luxury of getting to know people when you can be focused on them, rather than on yourself. This is the best time to build trust with a colleague.

  • If you’re new, ask for your orientation to include people from departments you’ll be working with. If you’re not new, offer to be an orientation buddy for someone who is and sit in on their cross-functional meetups
  • Volunteer for projects that will expose you to people from different parts of the organization. These can be work-related or extra-curricular (e.g., philanthropic or social committees, employee diversity councils, etc.)
  • If you can, capitalize on opportunities to travel with colleagues. The shared meals and downtime in taxis and on airplanes are great for creating connections.
  • And if you’re fortunate enough to work in the same location as many of your colleagues, switch it up in the cafeteria or join the charity cycling team.

When you know that your work is likely to require cooperation from people on other teams, reach out to give them a heads up about it before you need anything.

  • Invite cross-functional colleagues to a kick-off meeting so they have a sense of the whole project and where they fit in. Include the people who are normally excluded or taken for granted.
  • Ask your manager whether or not the manager in the other department is onside with the project to reduce any challenges caused by misaligned priorities.
  • If possible, go and visit the other team to get the lay of the land and make your face known to their team. Ask questions about their process, workload, and priorities so that your requests can be made with good context.
  • As you’re planning, reach out to share your preliminary thoughts on timing and ask for input about how the timing could be adjusted to fit with the other person’s priorities.

Once you’re in the heat of the moment, it’s not a great time to be building a relationship, but ya’ gotta’ do what ya’ gotta’ do, so suck it up and try to take the edge off your demands.

  • Provide context for your requests. Don’t just say what you need, give a little information about why you need it. Preferably, frame this so it’s something the other person wants too.
  • Give options. Rather than telling someone exactly what you want them to do (or exactly how or exactly when), tell them what you’re looking for and leave room for them to tell you how they’re going to meet your need.
  • Own it. If you left something to the last minute or completely missed the chance to give the person a fair warning, take responsibility. Apologize. Let them know that you realize your request is an imposition.


Here’s your homework.

  1. Pick one co-worker with whom you’re going to invest in building a relationship.
  2. Take one step to reach out to them and to learn more about who they are, what they do, and how you might help them.
  3. Find one way to add value for them.
  4. Report back. Add in the comments or send me a note. I’d love to hear about the connections you’re making and how they impact your work.

Next time you need to pick up the phone, make sure they know the voice on the other end.

Further Reading

Tips to improve the connection when you communicate

The Surprising Source of Most Trust Issues

Thank goodness for a crisis