Q&A (4) : How many people can you really be authentic with?

Dear Sarah,

I lead around 30 people. Obviously I have my own workload which keeps me very busy but recognise the importance of taking time to build relationships. How do I get that balance? If I spend lots of time building relationships then I have no time to do my own work.  Is it possible to have authentic relationships with everyone? How do I make even a brief interaction in the day more authentic?

Love, Emma*

Dear Emma,

It can be hard to have deep and meaningful relationships with 30 people especially when you have your own work load to get through. Interestingly, researchers have discovered that most of us can only cope with 12-15 close and intimate relationships in our life at any one time. These are the people who we are invested in, who we really care about and whose lives touch ours (and hopefully ours theirs). They might be our best friends, our children, our partner, parents or siblings. They are the people who would leave a big hole in our lives if they were no longer around.

On top of this close circle of people, we can also maintain a larger network of about 150 people. Any more than those numbers and we will probably find ourselves stretched too thin. Your work colleagues probably come into this second group, unless one or two of them are also great friends of yours too.

Building healthy and authentic relationships at work is a great aim. It will make the experience better for you and for them. We probably spend more time with our colleagues at work than we do with our own families - so it is worth taking time to invest in those relationships. However, as you point out - you only have a limited time in your day. So what can you do?

Here are a few suggestions.

1. Invest in a smaller group.
It is hard to go deep and invest greatly in 30 people but you could try choosing three people and then they can in turn look after a small group of people. If the 30 people are divided appropriately into smaller groups perhaps they could be encouraged to support and encourage each other. It is a great way to develop leadership and to delegate some of the responsibility to others in the team.

If everyone is at the same level and it would seem strange to pick 3 people - why not consider taking turns and rotating the groups so that everyone gets a chance to be in a group with you? Perhaps you could have a lunch with the group once a week and you can use the time to get to know each other better and to discuss any helpful issues.

2. Meet together regularly
How often do you meet together as team? Use these opportunities to allow people to see the "real you" and to model the leadership that you want to see. If authenticity is important to you - then create a safe environment where people are encouraged to ditch their armour and show up as themselves.

3. Remember the details
One great way to build connections is to get curious about people and who they are especially any colleagues you find harder to get on with. Try to discover new things about them and find out something of what it is like to be them. When you do discover new things - remember the details.

A few small touches can go along way. For example, if you remember the names of people's families and ask after them, if you mark Birthdays and special occasions or if you write a short note if someone does something really well or is struggling. If you have a bad memory (like me) it is worth jotting down some notes on each person as a reminder or putting those special occasions in your calendar.

4. Have fun together
Socials can help teams to relax a bit more and allow more of themselves to be seen. They aren't always everyone's scene so it is worth researching what people would or wouldn't like. I worked for a team once where we always had a fun Christmas party and an away day every year as well as other celebrations whenever we could squeeze them in. Those times helped create a bond in the team and many of us still look back fondly on those years when we worked together.

5. Always be authentic
Being authentic doesn't necessarily mean being vulnerable or going deep with every relationship or encounter. But it does mean being yourself at what ever level you do decide to go. So, whether you are saying "good morning" or having a difficult conversation or discussing a project - bring yourself into the exchange and be fully present.

I hope those suggestions might be of some help. Thank you for your great question and I would love for you to let me know how you get on.

Until then, be bold, be brave and be yourself.
Love, Sarah.


*Name has been changed.

If you have a question about how to live, love or lead more authentically then use the contact form here and we will try to include it in a future Q&A. If we do use your question we will send you a free copy of my book "Inside Out – how to have authentic relationships with everyone in your life."