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To Be Happier at Work, Invest More in Your Relationships

Many of us strive for a meaningful job, an impressive title, or a sizable salary at the ideal company. In doing so, we drastically undervalue the importance of relationships, even though extensive research shows that it’s people, not the perfect job, that lead to fulfillment.

Harvard Business Review

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What’s the secret to a fulfilling career? Most advice focuses on finding purpose and satisfaction in your work. If you can just land the perfect job doing meaningful work, you’ll finally be happy. But my research across a wide range of organizations and industries shows that our understanding of what leads to professional satisfaction is often misplaced. People tend to overestimate the importance of the what when they should be focusing on the who.

In interviews with a diverse group of 160 people from a variety of industries and positions, my colleagues and I found again and again that flourishing in your career depends as much on your relationships, both in and out of work, as it does on your job itself. People whose work is mundane or demanding are just as likely to feel satisfied and fulfilled as those with fun or inspiring jobs if they proactively invest in relationships that nourish them and create a sense of purpose.

The importance of relationships is backed up by research. Studies show that social connections play a central role in fostering a sense of purpose and well-being in the workplace. They also impact the bottom line: Effective management of social capital within organizations facilitates learning and knowledge sharing, increases employee retention and engagement, reduces burnout, sparks innovation, and improves employee and organizational performance.

As part of our Connected Commons research initiative, exploring the link between personal networks and professional success, my colleagues and I have talked to hundreds of people about how they transformed their careers and their lives through relationships. One of the stories that stuck with me came from Gail, a senior executive at a technology company. Gail reached a turning point when she was hospitalized for six weeks, in part due to stress from work. A friend from church gently reminded her, “You know this is not what life’s all about, right?”

Like so many of today’s workers, Gail was burned out. She realized that the cure was to reprioritize her professional and personal relationships and be intentional about how she structures her time. Now, every Monday, Gail spends an hour with her staff to review her calendar for the next four weeks. “If what is there does not align with people, purpose, or passion, it gets moved….I know where my priorities are and how I want each of my 24 hours to be spent,” she told us.

Despite a busy professional schedule, Gail also has strengthened ties to her family and church community to keep her grounded outside of work. She and her husband regularly evaluate whether they are spending their time on the people and activities that matter most. By intentionally managing her time and proactively nurturing key relationships, Gail has come to feel more satisfied and balanced in her life and in her career. She has since been promoted three times.

Gail’s story may seem extreme, but you don’t have to wait for a crisis moment to find the same sense of fulfillment and purpose she discovered. The first step is to clarify your north star objectives — the values, capabilities, and expertise you want to exemplify in your work. Think of these as a personal navigation system for your career. As Marcy, a senior executive at an insurance company, articulated during our interviews, “Playing defense [means] you are always reactive and living in fear. The only way to get out of it is to get clarity on who you are and what you want to do, and start forging a path and network that enable you to get there.”

Guided by your north star, review your professional and personal calendar for the coming month and consider which interactions bring you closer to your objectives and which pull you further away. Are you collaborating with people who share your values or who can teach you new ways of looking at things? Do you thrive when interacting with people who are upbeat, analytical, calm, or ambitious? This exercise isn’t about which colleagues you like on a personal level or want to socialize with. It’s about understanding which relationships and interactions are fulfilling, motivating, and aligned with your purpose.

Once you have clarity on your north star objectives and the relationships that will help you achieve them, start being intentional about how you spend your time. You want to proactively anchor yourself in nourishing relationships that give you a sense of purpose and buffer you against depleting ones that pull you away from it. Gail makes an effort to identify and nurture key relationships, including confidants who share her values and will tell her the truth, a “brain trust” that offers new perspectives, and experts who can help fill specific knowledge gaps.

It is essential to invest in meaningful relationships outside of work. Our research has repeatedly shown that people who thrive are anchored in at least one or two nonwork communities. This is more than blowing off steam on a treadmill or reading a book alone at night. Pick an activity you want to invest time in and do it with a group. Better yet, set goals with other members of the group so that you commit to persisting. Making time for nonwork commitments is not just fulfilling; it also helps sustain your mental and physical energy. Relationships outside work broaden our perspective and tap into aspects of our identity that don’t rise and fall with how well things are going in the office.

In addition to anchoring on nourishing relationships, it is equally important to buffer your time against draining interactions. While few of us have total control over our schedules, we have more opportunities than we realize to guard our time. Most knowledge workers spend 85% of their day in meetings or communicating over email or phone. If we can protect just a bit more time from this collaborative overload, by keeping the goals for meetings clear, we can invest it in the relationships that help us.

Other popular strategies for buffering your time include creating rules for when you check email or make phone calls, blocking time in your calendar for breaks or energizing projects, and creating hard stops at the end of the day. One couple we interviewed, who both work at a large technology company, agreed that after they pass a certain landmark on their commute home, they can’t talk about work anymore. They need their relationship to shift from professional to personal at the end of the day. Buffers like this allow you to take back control and stop letting habit and circumstance dictate how your time is spent.

Being more intentional in managing your time and interactions may feel daunting. Yet never in the history of work have we had more opportunity to sculpt what we do and who we do it with. Despite this flexibility, we too often cede control unnecessarily, letting other people dictate our priorities and fill up our schedules. When Amara, an operations leader at a pharmaceutical company, was selected for a promotion, she negotiated the ability to work from home one to two days a week. As Amara told us in an interview, “People said, ‘How did you get that?’ I told them, ‘I asked. Have you ever asked?’” Sometimes we are the ones standing in our own way.

Many of us strive for a meaningful job, an impressive title, or a sizable salary at the ideal company. In doing so, we drastically undervalue the importance of relationships, even though extensive research shows that it’s people, not the perfect job, that lead to fulfillment. By being clear on our north star purpose, anchoring ourselves in relationships that lead us there, and buffering against those that pull us away, we can find the satisfaction we’re seeking right where we are.

Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College, founder of the Connected Commons, and the author of Beyond Collaboration Overload (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021).

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This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was published July 30, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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