Grown-up Lego (a.k.a. Relationship Management)

Relationships, whether at work or at home, are built action by interaction, in much the way kids build structures out of Lego. Yet many of us treat those interactions as transactions… as finite moments or happenings that have no bearing on what comes next and nothing at all to do with the whole structure of the relationship.

The excuses are familiar and self-serving, i.e. “I’m pressed for time …so it’s okay for me to hurry this process.” “I’m under a lot of pressure to produce here …so to heck with their needs.” “I’m higher on the pay scale/have more experience than them …so I can afford to be brusque or ignore the niceties.” Add in misnomers (‘It’s just business’ or ‘business is business’), and the right to treat others cavalierly or as a means to an end is justified.

The lack of relationship management is particularly noticeable during negotiations, whether between countries, multi-nationals, teams at work, or between two individuals who are divvying-up household chores. The setting barely matters; the fall-out is the same: loss of respect and/or trust for the other person, resentment, grudges, or avoidance.

The shame is, if we don’t take a proactive approach to our relationships, we not only miss out on the richness of well-managed interactions and superior outcomes, we also damage our reputations. For colleagues, suppliers, customers, friends, and family recognize rough-shod treatment; they know when they’re being used as a means to an end; they know when they’re being asked to shoulder the brunt of things. They may rise above the behaviour or, for a variety of reasons, put up with it; but without a doubt, we lose stature in their eyes.  And this will damage our ability to achieve good outcomes – in the “transaction” at hand, and in future negotiations as well.

So, how to move away from poorly-managed relationships and reputations?

Well, to begin with, let’s stop saying: (to ourselves or others) ‘It’s just business’ or ‘business is business’, as if to imply that business is merely a transaction of goods and services. Business transactions have always been imbedded in social relationships ‒ in the rich interaction of goods and services between people. To say business is less is to conveniently excuse egocentric behaviour, greediness, power-for-power’s-sake decisions, and poor choices.

We can make purposeful choices.

If we’re going to be purposeful,we have to know what kind of alternatives we have. If we’re going to make choices, we have to know the amount of control we have over a situation. So even if we’re pressed for time; even if we’re under pressure to produce; even if we’re higher on the totem pole, we can decide to think ‘interaction’ (in the context of a relationship) rather than (impersonal) ‘transaction’.

Lastly, we can parallel our spoken communication and actions with a form of self-talk that is said to help regulate our behaviour.  “What?” you ask, “Self-talk? Self-talk that regulates our behaviour?!”

Yes, in fact. Self-talk can affect/regulate your behaviour, as some of you may know from experience (see link below to a series of studies published in a 2014 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).

To summarize the essence of the article, if we refer to ourselves by our names (or a non-first-person pronoun), we are able to distance ourselves somewhat from the situation and think more clearly about it i.e. “Doing business with so-and-so is something you really value, Peter.” or “People are worth your time, (your name);” or “Your relationship with your partner will be a happier one if you do your share of chores, (your name)”.  We’re aware that phrases like this sound elementary or even silly, but when we’re changing behaviour, the series of studies cited here show that if we address ourselves by name, we increase our chances of success.*

Managing our relationships and our reputations means bringing the good stuff ‒ the silver, transparent, and marbled pieces ‒ to the table. It means thinking about the overall structure. It means playing nice.

* Read article: Self-Talk as a Regulatory Mechanism: How You Do It Matters (pdf)


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