Posted for the Post Crescent August 2006
The Corporate “Marriage”: Key ingredients of successful work relationships
Most of us who are married know what it means to sustain a successful, long term relationship with another human being whom we have chosen to be a partner for life. How many of us also end up having significant and long term relationships at work which require as many of the same ingredients to make them successful? Unlike in our personal lives, however, in the work setting these relationships are often “arranged marriages” where we have not had a say in choosing a partner on whom we need to rely for our mutual success, the success of a project, and ultimately, the success of the company we work for.
Examples of long term, highly committed, very high stakes relationships are: co-owners of businesses, CEOs and COOs, Board Chairs and Presidents of companies, shareholders who are also family members in family owned business, and people who need to work together on projects. Unfortunately, by the time I get called in to work with a lot of these key relationships, a lot of damage has already been done. Usually there is a lack of trust between the two people, and a subsequent fear of communicating with one another openly and honestly, which invariably leads to an absence of healthy conflict and a corresponding intensity of feelings that are built up and unresolved.
In my model of coaching and consulting, some of the things I focus on as being critical to the success of these relationships are the following:
Shared goals: to what extent do the two people have an agreement regarding their common goals and what they need to accomplish by working together? Power: Which person has what kind of power in the organization, and how does this impact the relationship? What is the power dependent on, and how does each person use his or her power? Roles and responsibilities: How is the division of labor structured? Are these clear and agreed upon by both parties, and if so, is there complementarity between the roles or is there overlap and redundancy? Similarities and differences: How are the two individuals similar or different in their personalities, skills, background, vision of the future, areas of interest and work styles? Communication and conflict resolution: How well does each person listen to the other? What are the styles and preferences regarding how the two people communicate with one another? If one has a very aggressive and domineering style and the other is much more passive, or one is much more direct and the other prefers a less direct method of communicating, it can create a lot of issues. Patterns of interaction can then develop and become entrenched, such as one person becoming the “pursuer” (the one who is constantly trying to push issues), and the other who becomes the “avoider”, or the one who tries to deny, minimize and avoid the issues. Values and feelings: What are each person’s thoughts and feelings for one another and how do they resonate with the very important values that drive each person as a human being? Do they have a high level of mutual trust and respect? Do they acknowledge each other’s areas of talents and expertise? How much are they willing to give to the relationship and what do they need in return? Commitment and accountability: How does each person commit to the relationship and to the work at hand, and how do they hold one another accountable for the results?
A very important step in optimizing key work relationships is to address issues proactively so that when things are not able to be resolved within a relationship, the people look at engaging an “expert” who can be a neutral third party, and help the individuals concerned to find a resolution and learn skills that can help them to move forward differently. If that doesn’t happen, the cost can indeed be very high, in terms of the ongoing under-performance of the business, and eventually a “divorce” of the two individuals which can result in the ultimate impairment or demise of the business as well as having huge impacts from a personal standpoint.
Shipra Seefeldt is President of Strategic Solutions Consulting, based in Appleton. Shipra can be reached at Shipra@strategicsolutionsconsulting.com