Why Talk Relationships at Work?

We have a subconscious orientation to “relationship” at work that is antithetical to work. We operate as if “relationship” has nothing to do with work. I believe it is everyone’s job at work to maintain relationships that facilitate effective work.

These relationships are like arranged marriages. They are arranged by the lines on the org chart that connect the roles. That is, we are in these relationships by virtue of the roles we inhabit.

The quality of our work relationships determines what we can—and cannot—accomplish together. They are the context in which we perform and execute our work in the form of conversations. As such, relationships are the foundation of our success—individually and collectively.

When we hear “relationship” in a business context, we equate it with being social, familiar, even intimate with each other. Or we think of our professional relationships in a very two-dimensional way: they are either “good” or “bad”. That is, we see ourselves as being either “nice” or “not nice” to each other.

Nice is what we want in social relationships. Effective is what we need at work.

People spend a lot of mental and emotional energy trying to have “nice” relationships at work, which is admirable. Of course we should place a premium on virtues like kindness and compassion. But we need something more than cordiality in business. We need to create relationships in which we can candidly share our different perspectives, agree that we disagree (as we certainly will), learn from each other, and co-create new ways of moving forward together.

Trying to be uncompromisingly nice in our work relationships creates more friction. And sometimes it leads to disaster.

Consider Asiana’s disastrous flight 214 into San Francisco in July 2013. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the complexity of two of the plane’s key systems contributed to the crash. But the media also exposed what happened in the cockpit conversation in their coverage of the event. The captain, who was new to flying 777s, made an assumption about how the technology would behave and inadvertently stopped the autothrottle from controlling the plane’s speed. The training captain didn’t notice the error. And the third pilot didn’t speak up immediately when they noticed the plane was descending too fast. The behavioral norm in the cockpit (the decorum of saving face) forbid pointing out colleague’s mistakes. In the few seconds the pilot hesitated to challenge authority, three teenagers lost their lives.

Talking ABOUT

In an organizational culture of “nice”, people talk a lot about their relationships at work—especially when they don’t work. Most of those conversations happen with the wrong person. We tend to “talk relationship” with anyone but the individual we have a problem with.

When we equate being candid, direct or in disagreement with being “not nice”, we make it difficult to have the very conversations that our work relationships require of us.

Triangulating (a.k.a. gossiping) may make us feel better momentarily, but it kills the prospect of effectively operating together.

The more we talk with a third party, the more “right” we become, the more “wrong” the other person becomes, and the more strained our “problem” relationship becomes.

Leaders often inadvertently get caught acting as the pivot point in these relationship triangulations. Say two highly competent colleagues disagree about how to solve an operational problem in a meeting. In a culture of “nice”, they won’t work out their differences in the meeting.

Usually the individuals in question will take a more indirect, less confrontational approach to resolving their differences. Each person will lobby their manager behind closed doors to garner support for their solution to the problem. They will defend and rationalize their particular point of view. In this atmosphere of subterfuge, the pressure is on their manager to arbitrate the dispute and bridge the relationship. No matter which solution the manager chooses, playing the arbitrator will only reinforce the discord between the two colleagues. This is triangulation.

Talking WITH

To be “effective” at work, we need to stop involving third parties and start speaking up. We need to take responsibility for the effectiveness of every one of our work relationships. We need to talk with each other directly, not about each other.

What do these one-on-one conversations sound like?

  • We are kind with each other.
  • We listen without judgment, but with discernment, in order to learn from each other’s perspective. We stay present to fully engage with one another.
  • We speak directly and candidly to improve our performance.
  • We disagree as a matter of course. We acknowledge and respect our differences in order to strengthen our connection. We utilize conflict, rather than avoid it for the sake of peace and harmony, to innovate.
  • We never have to guess where we stand: we know that we stand together. If we drift apart, we talk about that.
  • We efficiently coordinate what we’re doing, confidently pointing out problems when we see them.

We can get great work done together by being candid and kind—but only if we’ve established this as our norm. If we have been disengaged or indirect in the past, then now is the time to have a conversation with one another to design our working relationships.

Next month: learn how a conversation about roles can start to generate a working relationship that works.