Monthly Archives: March 2014

Mastering Relationships

Relationships are the most powerful and least utilized factor in achieving extraordinary results – in organizations, and in your life.

Why do relationships matter? A participant in my “Building Ally Relationships” workshop (let’s call him Larry) once asked me that. Here’s what I said to him:

“Let me give you an example. You are sitting at your desk and the phone rings. A cheerful voice on the other end of the line says: ‘Hi, Larry. I need that report on my desk by close of business Friday’ and hangs up. How do you feel?”

Larry shrugged. “I guess it depends on the situation.”

“OK. Three different situations. One: the person on the end of the line is a prospective client you have been selling, and the report is the first step in a six-month work project.”

“I feel like the king of the world.”

“Fine. Situation two: that was your boss, reminding you to get your expense report in on time this week.”

“Ho-hum. It’s not like that doesn’t happen most weeks.”

“Last: it was an IRS auditor asking for documentation of your deductions for the past five years.”

“Argggggghhh! How about suicidal?”

“I think you get the point: exactly the same words. Three different relationships. Three very different reactions.”

In short: what you say and do is important, but what the other persons sees you as saying and doing, as well as the results you get, are shaped by, constrained and  enabled by the relationship between the two of you. If you want to be effective, you must pay attention to the relationship.

That’s easier said than done, of course, because like the air we breathe, relationships are largely invisible to us most of the time. But that’s just habit – it needn’t be that way. You can learn to see those invisible relationships and be conscious in what you do about them.

Descriptive Psychologists over the decades have developed powerful methods for being specific and precise about relationships, and for dealing with them in practical ways. This is the first post in a series devoted to advancing competence with relationships. First we look at organizational relationships; in subsequent posts we will take up personal and social relationships.

Relationships form the core infrastructure through which any organization creates value. Relationships in organizations are like the air we breathe: an all-pervading, crucial aspect of life that is essentially invisible to us. Everything accomplished in an organization is done in the context of work relationships, and ordinarily we give this no more thought than we give to breathing.  Under most circumstances we don’t need to give it much thought; functioning adults are essentially relationship supercomputers, who usually get relationships reasonably right without much effort.

But consider:

  • People who master martial arts, singing, acting, dance or any form of athletics cannot afford to just take breathing for granted. They must attain conscious control of their breath, to focus it and use it to achieve exceptional performance. Similarly, organizations who set out to achieve extraordinary results cannot just take work relationships for granted; they must attain conscious control of work relationships and build them with purpose and clarity.
  • Without much effort, most people do a reasonable job of organizing their work. But no organization today could afford to settle for that; instead, we use very precise process and statistical methods to design and constantly improve our work methods. No organization today can afford to settle for “reasonably right” work relationships; to achieve extraordinary results, we must use specific and very precise methods to build and utilize work relationships.

But if relationships are so important, why have our organizations done so very little with them? That’s a complex question with a long answer; for now, let’s just note that our ordinary language helps us very little in being specific and precise about relationships, and our usual academic methods for studying such things shine the light in the wrong places.

Let’s start with five simple but essential truths about  relationships and how they are built.

  1. Relationships are not wired into the fabric of the universe. Relationships are built through the everyday process of interaction: what they say and do, and what you say and do in response.
  2. Relationships turn out pretty much the way you expect them to, unless you do something specific to change that.

For example, in the ordinary course of engaging in a service business, a client starts with: “We need this service.” If things go as expected, your initial response is: “Absolutely, we do that.” You give them a proposal to provide the service, they hire you to provide the service, you successfully provide the service and they pay you for providing the service. Along the way, your conversation and  interaction are about the service, so that by the end you have built a solid business relationship, called Service Source – which is the lowest level of the relationship food chain. And you did it by simply doing what was expected.

But it doesn’t have to turn out that way.  You are not required to stay stuck at Service Source. Here are two other, perhaps less well-known truths about relationships:

  1. Relationships become what you treat them as being.
  2. Relationships are not determined by the initial move. In fact, it is your response to the first move – Descriptive Psychologists call this “Move 2” – that defines the relationship.

Same situation: your client starts with: “We need this service.” As before, your initial response is: “Absolutely, we do that.”  Only this time you continue: “Now let me catch up with you. I take it that you need this service because you have seen a problem that you need to solve – help me understand the problem we are solving.” They tell you. Then you respond: “Usually problems get  priority because of something you see in your strategic situation right now. What strategic issues are you looking at that give this problem such urgency?” Again they tell you. Then you reply:

“OK. So your strategic situation is such that, in order to grow and succeed right now, you need to solve this problem, and you need this service to solve the problem. We can do all that for you.” You propose to make a specific contribution to their growth and success by helping them to solve this problem by providing this service. They hire you to do all that, and you do it. They pay you for the contribution you make to their growth and success. Along the way you are careful to keep the conversation anchored in their strategic situation, so that by the end you have built a solid business relationship, called Ally.

Two situations. Exactly the same beginning. Two very different outcomes. And the only  difference between the two was: what you did in response to their initial move.

Since it’s so important, let’s do an “instant replay” of that Move 2. Your client made an initial move that usually initiates a Service Source relationship. You accepted the move and made a Move 2 that successfully treated their Move 1 as the initial move in an Ally Relationship. Specifically you did this by immediately linking their request to their actual bigger picture: the problem they are trying to solve, and the strategic situation that gives that problem priority now. Having elevated the conversation to the strategic situation, you keep it there, dipping down into problems and specific services strictly as a means to contributing to the strategic conversation.

(In the 1970’s I designed and conducted “Move 2” workshops called “Relationship Judo” for my consulting and HR clients. Like Judo, the moves are a lot easier to see and do than to describe, and practice really helps.)

OK: A new client, a blank sheet of paper: it’s easy to see how you can create an Ally Relationship if you really want to and know how to make the right moves.

But what about all those business relationships you already have? After all, as I am frequently reminded in my workshops, “everybody knows that it’s really hard to change an existing relationship, and it takes forever, right?”

Wrong. (I really love this part because it’s so obvious once you see it.)

You can change an existing relationship quicker and more easily than you can establish a new one if you keep in mind another essential truth about relationships:

  1. People will immediately and willingly change their relationship with you if they see the new relationship as giving them more of what they want than the old relationship did.

In other words, people will happily accept a free upgrade in their relationship with you. You’re not likely to get far, however, by offering someone an upgrade. They probably won’t know what you’re talking about and it may sound weird – “What’s the catch?”

In matters of relationship, doing beats talking about hands down. Start treating the relationship you already have as the relationship you need it to be, and if they respond positively (almost everybody does – more on that later) the relationship has changed.

NEXT: Relationship Change?