How We Form Relationships

No two relationships are the same. Our relationships are as unique as our individual personalities. Think of the journey of your strongest relationships. Those you value most likely evolved over time and included a fair amount of conflict. What are the characteristics that set those relationships apart? Mutual trust and respect are probably foremost. Honesty is another key ingredient. You don’t have to worry about people hiding information from you. You don’t have to worry about being unfairly judged. Candor is another centerpiece feature. You can ‘vent’ your frustrations without reservation. You likely seek out these people to test new ideas and can speak your mind without fear of recrimination. And, you probably get a great deal of personal satisfaction and fulfillment from these relationships.

The bottom line for these relationships is that you can release all of the usual defenses and absolutely be yourself with complete confidence that the relationship will survive. Daniel Goleman describes a state of “flow” that occurs in high performance relationships when emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.[1] “A surgeon, for example, recalled a challenging operation during which he was in flow; when he completed the surgery, he noticed rubble on the floor of the operating room and asked what had happened. He was amazed to hear that while he was so intent on the surgery part of the ceiling had caved in–he hadn’t noticed at all.” [2]

Now think about how long those relationships took to develop. Some may be a lifetime while others took months or years to develop. Others may have developed more quickly because of a shared experience of working through differences. In most cases, however, their development may seem like more serendipitous than deliberate.

Most people also get better at managing relationships over time. “Studies that have tracked people’s level of emotional intelligence through the years show that people get better and better in these capabilities as they grow more adept at handling their own emotions and impulses, at motivating themselves, and at honing their empathy and social adroitness. There is an old-fashioned word for this growth in emotional intelligence: maturity.[3]

It’s not always in our nature to be proactive, however, in shaping our relationships. We think of it as a personal and emotional journey; that imposing a formal process may lessen the feelings of personal fulfillment or the natural course of the relationship. Many people take an evolutionary “ready-fire-aim” approach to shaping relationships, just following and reacting to events as they come up in the course of spending time together. Our instinctive reaction is to jump into shared effort and let patterns of behavior play out over time. The relationships that survive and thrive are the ones that effectively manage conflict and other behavior obstacles and deliver on results.

This haphazard approach can leave valuable resources that people have to offer on the table. For example, a person with a creative, spontaneous, and persuasive personality may overpower a more rational and organized person. A person who fears being fired at work may avoid the risk of making any kind of mistake. A person with an accommodating personality constantly gives in to preferences of others, taking on more work and than is manageable to try and keep things harmonious.

Relationships and Culture

“Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

The path of least resistance for relationships is to follow the authority and mimic the behavior of the leader. Over time, any group or even an entire company can take on the personality of a strong leader through collective norms. A close friend of mine was an executive for a successful grocery chain where the entire executive team took on the CEO’s behavior of arriving early to work. The team took it so seriously that on one icy morning the entire executive team arrived so early for a flight that the airport wasn’t even open. They ended up standing in the freezing temperature for over an hour before they could even get into the terminal building.

The same thing happens in all relationships. Strong people usually shape the initial norms by the force of their personality. The norms then develop according to the shared values, attitudes, and assumptions of the people involved, creating a distinct culture. If the approach appeals to team members and delivers results, the behaviors become more embedded as ongoing norms over time. Success is most often dependent on the leader. The only way to challenge the norms, then, is to disagree with the leader, which can be very risky! It’s all very sloppy, really. When you consider how deliberately we manage other parts or our personal and working life, it’s hard to believe we’re so haphazard in managing our working relationships!

Most people don’t realize that every relationship has a culture. You don’t usually think of culture operating at the relationship level, or having a powerful effect on your individual behaviors, but it absolutely does. Drs. Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, renowned experts on culture, described the dynamics of culture as, “Culture is to the corporation as air is to man, so enveloping that unless something foul or fragrant is added, he is not aware of it.”[1] They went on to say:

[1] “Building a Dynamic Corporation Through Grid OD”,

The scope and depth of daily activities and actions in any relationship rest on a silent culture. It is therefore difficult for people to see its underlying themes and patterns. Action cannot be stopped, frozen, or put in slow motion. As a result, the underlying patterns may remain obscure. Patterns of interactions and the values, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that people live by on a normative basis have evolved from traditions, precedents, and past practices that shape the everyday give and tale of the relationship. At any time, they may become so uniformly accepted that they acquire a “second-nature” quality.[1]

 

References:

[1] (Emotional Intelligence page 91)

[2] (Emotional Intelligence page 91)

[3] (Working With Emotional Intelligence Page 7)

[4] “Building a Dynamic Corporation Through Grid OD”,

[5] From article “Sacred Cows And Silent Structures” 1982, page 2

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