4 Ways to Strengthen Your Peer Relationships (and Become More Effective)

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

If you’re overly focused on your day-to-day tasks, you could be missing out on a key way to improve your performance — connecting with peers on your team and across your organization. By cultivating a strong peer network, you can secure the information, collaboration, and resources you need to do great work.

Some people avoid this kind of internal networking because they think it’s political maneuvering or that they don’t have time. But peer networking can be done in the spirit of helping your peers, team, and organization — rather than solely for personal gain. And if time is your most scarce resource, understand that strong relationships can end up making you more — not less — efficient. After all, it’s a lot easier and faster to get help from someone who knows and respects you than from someone who doesn’t, whether that person is the friend you call when you run out of gas at 2am or the peer in finance who helps get you a client refund in time to save a key account.

Here are a few ways to start building a strong peer network:

Rather than having lots of connections, aim for strong working relationships with the right connections.

To find out if you’re cultivating the correct ones:

  • Spend 15 minutes brainstorming and writing down a list of peers whose work impacts yours. These are the people who can help you get work done, who depend on your work, or who have similar goals to you. Think broadly. As Linda Hill and Kent Lineback write in their book, Being the Boss, “If your networks don’t extend beyond the location where you work or the people you see often, if they don’t anticipate future needs, you almost certainly aren’t reaching far enough.”
  • Rank each relationship as strong, weak, or nonexistent. Strong means you’re already allies, openly sharing information and helping each others’ ideas and projects succeed. Weak indicates you see room for improvement, and nonexistent could indicate that you haven’t tried connecting with the person or that, because of a personal clash or other reason, you and the person aren’t engaging.
  • Consider which relationships to focus on building. Some good candidates: Weak or nonexistent connections who are important to your current work, who could potentially help you with future work, or who could offer important insights so you better understand the big picture for your team and organization. For example, say you’re in engineering and have deep knowledge of customer behavior. Could you exchange ideas with someone in marketing who could shed light on your industry’s competitive landscape?

To ensure you follow through, pick just a few to start — say, no more than three to five — and reach out to them in a way that seems most appropriate to start building the relationship.

And don’t forget these two key points: The relationship can grow much stronger if you start building it now, rather than waiting until you need something from the person. And be sure to pick people who are relevant to your work — not just people you like personally.

2. Be proactive in sharing mutually beneficial information (not just seeking it).

By gathering information from peers, you can gain a better understanding of how to contribute to team and company goals, set the right priorities, propose ideas that are in line with team and business needs, and ask for the right resources to succeed.

But you don’t just want to seek information without offering it. Instead, think proactively about sharing information by asking others how you can help. Also, ask yourself: What information do I have that could enable someone to make better decisions? that could make their work life easier?

Hear about someone on another team just starting a process that you’re already familiar with? Offer to share best practices. Is a new hire starting on your team? Take the time to sit down with them to give important context on how your team operates and how your work intersects with theirs, and to talk through ways you can work well together.

This approach can even strengthen ties, or at least reduce the strain on them, when you’re sharing bad news. For example, is your project running behind schedule? Loop in other people who depend on your work as soon as possible to explain why and what you’re doing to troubleshoot the issue. They may not be thrilled with the news, but at least they’ll be better prepared to adjust if needed (and likely will appreciate the heads-up).

3. Take advantage of brief or chance encounters to spark creative conversations.

People and teams have a tendency to fall into idea ruts. And research, including that of sociologist Ronald Burt, suggests that those who branch outside of their usual group of confidants are more exposed to new ways of thinking, behaving, and problem solving. People whose networks span into other groups “are at higher risk of having good ideas,” Burt writes. “This is not creativity born of genius; it is creativity as an import-export business. An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another.”

To start generating the kinds of sparks that could lead to breakout ideas, take advantage of those incidental bursts of time you spend with peers to go beyond the mundane “How was your weekend?” small talk. In the five minutes before a meeting really gets going or during a chance encounter in a lunch line, try asking questions like, “So, what are you working on?” or “What are you excited about right now?” or “What’s your biggest challenge?” to start a quick conversation that could lead to a fruitful exchange of ideas.

4. Become an active feedback-seeker on your ideas and projects (but only if you genuinely want the input).

Just as peers can help inspire creative ideas, they can also offer valuable perspectives on your work in progress. By seeking others’ views and opinions, you could not only end up with a better finished product, but also greater buy-in from peers — especially if you couch your request for feedback in terms of how it may benefit them.

For example, maybe you’re in sales and want to run some new messaging by a peer in engineering to be sure you’re not overlooking a key feature. You could say, “I’m wondering if you’d be willing to take a look at some new messaging I’m working on — I want to be sure it truly captures the benefits of the new feature your team built.”

That said, don’t ask purely to ingratiate yourself with a peer. Ask because you really do want the person’s feedback. Asking and then ignoring what someone says (or at least not explaining why, in the end, you didn’t take their feedback) could end up doing more harm than good to your relationship.

Last but not least, before you ask, determine exactly what kind of feedback you’re seeking: Do you need someone to bounce a quick idea off of, or are you looking for an in-depth critique of a project you’ve spent considerable time on? You may call on different people depending on your answer. Also, be sure you’re clear and specific in what you’re after when you ask the person.