Corporate insights The Biggest Mistake You're Making At Work

In order to get business done, stop thinking so much about business

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One of the most important teaching moments in my career came at a time when I felt confident that I was already on top of the world.

 I was 23 years old and I was running operations for the Pentagon’s Ministry of Defense Advisors training program. I was overseeing male-dominant team, and they were all more than twice my age.  It was an intense experience: I was traveling to military bases all over the country and keeping absurd hours, but even in the middle of the conflict in Afghanistan, I was thrilled to be preparing civilians for the frontline of the war on terror and always managed to keep my wits about me.

On this particular day, we were preparing for a major negotiation with senior Afghan officials and I was laser-focused on controlling and perfecting every detail of the long day ahead of us. I remember feeling so sure of my abilities that morning, yet I experienced the shockwaves of a wake-up call when a senior Afghan official stopped me mid-sentence and interrupted:

“Friendship first, business later.”

My initial reaction was horror: Friendship? Who has time for friendship at a time like this? This was not part of the itinerary!!!

However, as the day progressed, I came to understand the reasoning behind the Afghans’ approach. Over countless cups of tea, with a translator sitting between us, we built a trust that made the transition to the day’s negotiations much smoother. As we veered into controversial and sensitive subjects, it was clear that there was far less brinkmanship and game-playing than I had expected at the outset.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, we establish trust with others by vulnerably sharing pieces of our lives with them, and vice versa. However, many people opt to keep their career and personal personas profoundly separate, in an effort to avoid blurring the lines of professionalism.


Here are a few steps you can take right now to implement the powerful “friendship first, business later” approach in your career, a la Afghanistan.

  1. Get to know your colleagues…authentically. As the Afghan official taught me, authentic connection is the key. Prior to working for the Pentagon, I was networking in earnest, hoping to get clear on what I wanted to do with my life. I met with 200 people in two months for networking coffees… I hustled. I thought I was being smart in my approach, and this belief was reinforced when I landed the Pentagon position. Fast forward a year, and I was once again trying to get clear on my life purpose. This time, I kept the Afghan’s mantra in mind as I filled my calendar with coffee meetings and networking events. Regardless of what type of business we’re engaged in, all work is driven by human need, desire, or interest. Therefore, connecting on a human level is critical. What this comes down to is not about impressing the other person, it’s about connecting with the other person. Check yourself—are you focused too much on you? Take that as an invitation to switch gears and focus on serving others… Sure enough, I noticed that the people who followed up with me and who recommended me for positions weren’t necessarily the individuals with the most senior titles or the vacancies that needed to be filled immediately – they were the people I got along with really well.
  1. Be a team player. Another great way of establishing likeability is by ignoring the office hierarchy that brings out pettiness in others. Your willingness to do whatever is needed to get the job done is a surefire way to establish yourself as a comrade among your colleagues. That means manning the phones on a hectic day, making the midnight coffee run, or helping an overworked teammate tackle their workload, even if your paycheck and title suggest such jobs are “beneath” you. This approach guarantees that the work gets done; but more importantly, it’s the most straightforward way of showing your colleagues that you don’t consider yourself to be too good for them, or for the work you’re collectively trying to accomplish.
  1. Celebrate your colleagues’ talents. We all want to be acknowledged for our skills and attributes, especially in the workplace. Even if you aren’t the boss, showing your colleagues that you notice their unique brilliance is a surefire way to establish likeability, camaraderie, and trust. If you see that someone is exceptionally good at something, offer to take some work off their plate so you can free them up to make better use of their skill set. When it’s appropriate to do so, use group meetings to give them shout-outs for their particular contributions. This makes it clear that you are not attempting to compete or undermine your coworkers, and in turn, they will trust and respect you for shining the spotlight on a job well done, even when your performance is not the one being celebrated.

Friendships are built on trust, and in the world of business, trust is a rare – and sought-after – phenomenon. Even if the sky is falling, your value as a trusted, liked, and loyal colleague carries more weight than the great performer who doesn’t have any relationships among his teammates.

Just ask the Afghans—they get it. By the end of my workday with that senior official, there was no question in my mind that our negotiations might have fallen apart more quickly if there wasn’t a friendship at stake. To think how eager I was to get the ball rolling for the sake of staying on track with my arbitrary itinerary!

… My advice to you?

In order to get business done, stop thinking so much about business … Whether it’s listening to someone’s life story over 50 cups of tea or simply distributing the forgotten papers you found in the communal printer tray to your coworkers at the end of a long workday, don’t overlook those simple opportunities. However irrelevant they may seem to the task at hand, they’re actually paving the road for meaningful relationships…and for career success.


Credit: Ashley Stahl for Forbes Leadership

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