Tips For Designing Relationships That Work

tips for designing relationships


Sally Grisedale

Why Design a Relationship?

As a product design leader I loved to create teams and products. I had never considered designing how I wanted to be around the people I worked with. The idea of “designing my relationships” was introduced to me at coaching school.

As a hiring manager you may be onboarding someone who has had a rotten experience with their last boss. As a response, they may have built up a layer of armor to protect themselves.

Or perhaps you have a junior person with great subject matter expertise but little or no experience with being managed.

Whatever the scenario, learning to design the working relationship you want to have with your new hire is a pro move for setting you both up for a smooth and successful working collaboration.

The benefit of designing a relationship

The benefit of designing your relationships up front is that you establish a foundation and set up the conditions for a working relationship built on mutual respect that enables people to feel safe, trusted, respected, and valued.

When should you design your relationships?

I recommend using the first meeting with your new hire to design your alliance and lay the groundwork for how you want to work together. But don’t stop there; continue to iterate your working relationship over time.

What does designing a relationship involve?

It’s a candid 1:1 conversation with your new hire centered on a few open ended questions that will help you explore what’s really important to you both about working together. You need to ask these questions with genuine curiosity and openness to hearing feedback. If you hurry, or use it as a check mark on your to do list, it could backfire on you.

How do you frame the conversation?

Take the time to set the context for your conversation. You don’t get to do over onboarding a new hire, so use this precious time to create a relationship and design how best to work together.

They may already have some ideas about how they want to be in this new role, but there may be some places they are not yet sure about. Make them feel comfortable by communicating that this is just the start of what you hope will be a long and rewarding working relationship. Ask them how this sounds to them.

All great researchers know that asking open-ended questions that start with the words “what” or “how” encourage rich and meaningful conversations. To get to know your new hire, here are some suggested open-ended questions you can use to get to know them better.

  • Learn about hopes and aspirations
  • If working here was to have a huge impact in your life, what would that look like?
  • What new skills do you want to develop?
  • What are some of the conditions that need to be in place for you to thrive?

Learn about their past experiences of being managed

  • Do you have any tips for me about being your manager?
  • What do you want me to know about you?
  • Do you have any existing practices or beliefs I need to be aware of?

Ask about expectations around accountability

  • How do you prefer to be recognized?
  • How do you hold yourself accountable?

Share what they can expect from your leadership style

  • Do I have your permission to be direct, to point out things I see?
  • What is the best way for me to give you feedback?

Putting in the time now to design how you want to work together will prevent misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and performance issues later on.

Remember, it’s possible no one has ever spoken to them this way before. Think back to the interactions you’ve had with leaders you’ve worked with, and you know this is true. It’s not a sign of weakness as a leader to be curious about the real lives of the members of your team.

The truth is your professional future lies more with your team than with your boss. Their success is your success.

When you set new hires up for success they will be a trusted, honest, reliable source who has your and their project’s best interests at heart.

As a former leader at Facebook, Apple, and Yahoo! building global product design teams, I’ve interviewed and hired many exceptional people with deep subject matter expertise and incredible leadership skills.

If you’re exhausted by the increased workload brought on by COVID-19 and would like to chat about what else is possible, put some time on my calendar below.

Photo by Kevin Turcios for Unsplash

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What Is the Leading by Design Newsletter? Great question.

Leading by Design is a blog for creative leaders working in tech. It’s not a “Why You Should Use AI in Design Thinking” or “How to Hire and Retain Product Design Teams with Impact” type of blog. There are enough of those.

I write about the challenges you can’t safely discuss as creative leaders working in tech. The stories come directly from my experience leading teams at Apple, Meta, Yahoo!, and some start-ups and from the executive design leaders I coach today.

I have written about the stressful magpie boss, hateful cross-functional peers, creative burnout, the shame of job loss and survivor guilt, and the fear of becoming irrelevant in the marketplace.

I publish once a week and offer strategies to reframe your challenge so you can return to being the creative leader your team loves you to be.

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