In early 2008, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made an all-out effort to deal with his city’s traffic problems by proposing that the city charge drivers who entered the most congested areas. Mayors don’t have that kind of authority, so he asked the New York State Legislature to give it to him. Over a week’s time, Bloomberg turned on the charm, with dinners for legislators at the mayor’s residence, a team of lobbyists working in Albany, and elaborate presentations showing lawmakers how their districts would be affected by the changes.

Didn’t work. Legislators barely considered Bloomberg’s proposal, and some seemed to enjoy snubbing the mayor. Why? One reason was the hurry-up nature of Bloomberg request; legislators thought the mayor was being disrespectful by asking for a quick vote. But another reason was Bloomberg himself. As one legislator, generally considered a friend of the mayor’s, told the New York Times, “All politics is relationships, and if he hasn’t built the relationships over time, he can’t suddenly create those relationships with 48 hours to go in the process. It just shows that six and a half years into his term, the mayor just does not know how to approach the legislature.”

Ouch. And, yet, unquestionably true – both about Bloomberg, who clearly isn’t comfortable rubbing elbows with politicians, and politics in general. All politics is relationships, but then again so are most human endeavors. And nowhere is that more true than in civic work, as I’ll explain shortly.

But, first, a word about relationships in general. It goes almost without saying that we need other people to have productive and meaningful lives, but we sometimes don’t appreciate how much. Here’s a hint: Academics who’ve studied natural disasters, like hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, earthquakes in Italy, and tsunamis in Asia, have found that the people most likely to survive and later restore their lives are those with the greatest number of relationships. Partly it’s because they have support systems that others don’t, and in times of great trauma, being surrounded by those who care about you makes you want to go on. But it’s not just psychological, researchers have learned; the well-connected have access to a storehouse of knowledge about getting things done. One researcher who had studied a tsunami’s aftermath in India explained it this way: “Those individuals who had been more involved in local festivals, funerals, and weddings, those were the individuals who were tied into the community. They knew who to go to, they knew how to find someone who could help them get aid.”

And it’s not just during disasters. Researchers who’ve studied corporate CEOs have consistently found that those promoted from within companies do better, on average, than those hired from outside. This isn’t true in every case, of course, but it’s true in the aggregate: Those hired from within last longer in their jobs than those recruited from other companies. There are many explanations for this, but one that researchers point to again and again is that home-grown executives know from day one how the company really works – what academics call “private knowledge” (unlike information you could get about the company from looking at its financial statements and organizational charts or looking things up on Google). And private knowledge – about how decisions are made, who is reliable, where and why initiatives have failed in the past – can be decisive in a CEO’s career.

Or in a civic leader’s career. Why is it so important to have a big and diverse network in civic work? Two reasons:

  • Power and resources are diffuse in cities. You can’t make major changes in cities by having one or two people, or even a small group, say yes; you have to get large groups to agree. The only way to do that is by knowing the decision makers well enough to win their commitments at the right time. And that takes long-established relationships. (Are you listening, Mayor Bloomberg?)
  • Communities are incredibly diverse: economically, politically, religiously, ethnically, in educational attainment, in years spent in the community, and on and on. As a result, you have to work harder at building relationships in communities than in companies or most other human activities, for the simple reason that the people whose help you’ll need won’t always run in your circles. The first task of community relationship building, then, is to consciously seek out people who aren’t like you.

But on the other side of these obstacles is a big reward for those who overcome them: Because communities are so diverse and power so diffuse, there’s a great deal of private knowledge in cities – basically, information about getting things done that isn’t widely known. The result is that the person with the best relationships – deep in trust and broad in diversity – is the one best positioned to accomplish things. If a project is stalled, she’ll know how to get it back on track. If a crisis blows up, she’ll know the critical constituencies who’ll need to be reassured and how to do it. If there’s financing problem in an important project, she’ll know those most likely to step in with resources.

This leads us to the next big question: If relationships are so important to civic work and the benefits so great, how do you form them? How do you meet people and turn acquaintances into friends? And once you’ve deepened your relationships, how do you use them to benefit your civic work and the city?

Sociologists who’ve studied the connections between people say there are four things that strengthen relationships: the time people spend together, their sense of identification with one another, the trust that’s formed between the two (especially how free they feel in sharing confidences), and how they reciprocate, which is an academic’s way of saying trading favors.

When you look at this list, you can see how things work pretty much in that order: First, people spend time together, then they see things in the other person they identify with (even if, on the surface, the other person seems different), they begin confiding in one another, and finally they help each other out. By the time you get to that final stage, trading favors, you have a deep relationship.

As a side note, don’t let the term “trading favors” turn you off. It’s one of the oldest and most beneficial human instincts. If someone helped you move from a dorm room to an apartment in college, and you later helped him move, you’ve traded favors. If you swapped turns driving the carpool to soccer practice, you’ve traded favors. If a civic leader helped you raise money for your project and you did the same for hers, you’ve traded favors. Trading favors becomes a bad thing only when it involves trading things you don’t actually own, such as government resources.

Still, I haven’t actually answered the question. It’s important to understand the stages of relationships, but knowing them doesn’t explain how to move through them. Here’s where civic work becomes the answer to its own problem: You do it through volunteering. It’s the best way – maybe the only sure way – of meeting large numbers of people and working alongside them. Want to know who’s reliable? Work on a Habitat for Humanity project. Want to know who’s wise? Serve on a nonprofit board. Want to know who truly knows their parts of the community? Raise money with them.

And this brings us, finally, to the reasons for the relationships. For friendship, sure. To be a more civically engaged and culturally aware person, of course. But the reason you set out to build those civic relationships was to get things done in your community. And for that you have to ask people to do things: to serve on a committee, donate money, or turn out their friends for an important event.

I understand why some are reluctant to ask; they fear it makes them seem pushy. In fact, just the opposite. It makes you look like a leader. Rather than thinking less of you, people will think more of you when you ask for their help. And when they agree, they’ve invested in your success. And that may be the ultimate stage of a relationship.

Chris Matthews, the television commentator, wrote not long ago that this was something John F. Kennedy learned early in his political career: You have to ask. Matthews says it’s what has been missing from President Obama’s administration. Yes, he raised enormous hopes (and donations) among his followers in 2008. But once in office Obama didn’t ask them to do anything other than cheer for him. (Unlike, say, the Tea Party, which has continuously asked its followers to do things in opposition to President Obama.) “There are certain basics to becoming a leader,” Matthews wrote in an essay for Time magazine. “The first is asking people to follow you. Kennedy asked. Obama used people to get elected.” As an Obama supporter, Matthews added, “He needs to start asking.”

So do you. If you want to create loyalty, which is the deepest level of relationship you can have in public or private life, you need to ask people to do things for you. But first, be prepared to spend time with people who aren’t much like you. And be quick to help them with their projects.