Why are our working relationships so different to our personal relationships? (diary of a digital transformation)
I’m sharing my story for four reasons:
i) to help me reflect and learn
ii) to share my lessons to help you
iii) to connect and learn alongside people who want to develop
iv) to be honest and open about my experiences, good and bad (to lead by example)
I’ve been reflecting on the nature of our working relationships because they drive our behaviour and can help or hinder, especially when we are considering organisational transformation.
Let’s look at a couple of examples from my work history:
Working in large, hierarchical corporates, I find my thoughts, feelings and behaviour changes when I consider dealing with more senior managers. I might feel initimidated or nervous. I worry about getting a positive reaction and would spend more time preparing for a meeting. As the seniority increases, these feelings and reactions tend to increase, even to the point, where I might avoid or certainly not ‘step up’ to running the meeting.
As I write this, I’m a little embarrased and also annoyed at myself — this behaviour and my reaction to it are not helpful.
Working with peers, there are no such reservations, I treat them as equals and will give them respect and expect this in return. This is very similar to my relationships with my friends and family.
For some of you, this will resonate.
Now I’m going to speculate how it might feel from that senior manager’s position. Interestingly, they might well suffer the exact same anxieties unless they have the good fortune to be on the ‘top of the pile’. But then, even the CEO needs to keep the shareholders happy!
But the senior manager also relies on their ‘subordinates’ to deliver on commitments they have made. Depending on the individual, they rely on different approaches to get things done including:
Similarly, they are unlikely to have relationships like this with their friends and family. Of course, we may recognise some of these as being possible parenting styles (some more outdated than others!).
Transactional analysis tells us about how we adopt different styles in our relationships with others — namely, parent, adult or child.
But why is this a problem? Isn’t this just the nature of things in large organisations and we have to deal with it?
Perhaps we should either just climb the hierarchy so we can become the boss or just be happy with our lot and minimise conflict with others. Or avoid it altogether (mostly) and become a contractor.
Obviously, this is rather simplistic and there are many leaders who nurture adult relationships with all their colleagues rather than adopting the parental style.
However, the chips are stacked against those who try.
Climbing the hierarchy infers power and status which can become addicitive and the temptation to exercise that power is strong. And being subject to the power being exercised will inevitably change your behaviour. Some will push back, others will conform to reduce conflict.
As an independent contractor, the biggest exercise of power is extending or terminating my contract. Negotiation at the start or during a contract is also an opportunity to exercise power.
This can cause me to be conflicted between preserving a critical relationship and speaking out or doing the ‘right thing’. My most recent example was being served notice at Lloyds at the start of 2018.
As is often the case, the reasons given were rather generic and more difficult to understand as they were also second-hand. However, I suspect if I had paid more attention to the relationship with my manager at the time then this wouldn’t have happened. Also, I had two managers and a strong relationship with the second manager. Sometimes, it is difficult to know which relationship you need to manage!
The problem here was that I would need to spend a lot of time and energy preserving the relationship rather than focusing on the work to be done. Also, the reason for some of the conflict (I believe) was that I could see significant problems that were hugely important for the whole organisation. In particular, my team, along with others was not delivering value for the customer fast enough. There could have been many reasons for this but I had some hunches that I wanted to follow up and experiment with. I felt this was important because, if we could solve this problem, it would make a positive impact on many teams across the organisation, not just mine.
The new approach to work being adopted in Lloyds gave me autonomy (and permission) to understand these other problems (whilst also completing my other commitments). This focus on other goals which weren’t immediately relevant for my manager, I suspect, was at the heart of the issue.
So what was the impact for the organisation? My manager got his work done with my replacement who was perhaps more 'compliant’. Meanwhile, a more significant, organisation-wide issue remained and lost a passionate individual (me!) who was highly motivated to solve that problem.
Funnily enough, this ended well because I now had the opportunity to apply for a role in a team who were interested in solving this problem. My new team owned the new method/ways of working for the organisation and this problem was a central concern for them.
There is a lot of discussion these days about the importance of bringing your ‘whole self’ to work. And, in particular, how this is critical for organisations to be successful.
I hope this example illustrates how doing the right thing for the organisation and following your own strengths and passions can conflict with the need to preserve relationships in a hierarchical organisation.
I was passionate about solving bigger problems in the organisation but I wasn’t able to do that without causing friction in my relationship with my manager. And I was very motivated to solve the bigger problem because it would have impact in my team but also across all teams.
This is an example where bringing my ‘whole self’ caused conflict and issues.
So what can we do about this?
So the first thing I would call out is the need for psychological safety as popularised by Amy Edmondson in her book Teaming. Watch her TedX video here.
In short, this a call to action for leaders to role model and nurture a culture where individuals feel safe in speaking up and challenging. I would go further and suggest the culture should celebrate and reward this behaviour.
This creates an environment where issues and opportunities that I encountered can be discussed openly without fear of sanction.
The second big change is to reexamine organisations and how they are designed. The hierarchical structure and power relationships they create waste energy on politics which would be better focussed on pursuing the organisation’s purpose. The design for organisations today is based on optimising organisations for efficiency where the product or service was well known, the customer demands didn’t change and the environment was relatively well known and slow moving. This is the legacy of Taylorism and is widely recognized to be a poor design for today where all of these assumptions no longer hold.
Amy Edmondson talks about organising for learning (the new model) rather than organising for execution (Taylorism).
There is no one size fits all solution to this problem but the alternative is for organisations to die slowly as they are made less relevant by organisations who have embraced this challenge. Or organisations that have been created with these principles built in from the outset.
There are many inspiring examples of different models out there but here are a few to get you thinking:
The standards of care were falling in community healthcare in the Netherlands and nurses were frustrated in a system which prevented them from providing the service they wanted. All in the name of efficiency and modern practices. Buurtzorg was formed in response to this and has solved these problems by building small community teams which are run as full businesses; there are no HR and marketing and other centralized functions. It has been a huge commercial success with happy employees and customers.
I attended a presentation recently where Andrew Holm explained how he radically transformed his engineering company to survive in a world where it was failing to compete on cost. The details of his presentation can be found here. My brief summary is that he realised that he needed to redesign the organisation so it worked with people’s natural motivations. The organisation was designed to thrive when people followed their natural inclinations, expressed themselves and brought their own individual ‘magic’ to the organisation. This is very thought provoking stuff and I recommend you read their blog.
Finally, I have recently become a board member at the Sleuth cooperative based on their express intent to treat everyone as adults. There are no managers and sub-ordinates, just a group of people with a shared vision (to help local authorities innovate for the public good), a desire to be successful and a recognition that strength comes from working with others. Read more by checking Hilary Simpson’s (the co-founder) updates on LinkedIn.
If you are interested in reading more, Reinventing Organisations has a number of examples of these new models.