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Written by Guy Millar on 1 July 2013 in Features

Guy Millar uncovers the real reason why relationships are important at work

Relationships affect everything. From how successful we are with our customers, colleagues and communities to our relationship with ourselves, mastering relationships is a critical predictor of success in business. When building relationships and trust with the customer is at the forefront of everything a business must do today, understanding relationships is crucial for how they can have a positive impact on employee engagement, customer satisfaction, retention and the company's brand.

Daniel Goleman's Leadership that gets Results, a landmark Harvard Business Review study, discovered that a manager's leadership style constituted 30 per cent of the company's bottom line profitability; therefore, how a manager manages people and the skills he is given is critical.

It is becoming more accepted that management today needs to be done by engaged, self-managing 'knowledge' workers and that this requires new skills that most managers have not needed before. In addition to the traditional skill sets of management, they now need to be:

  • good communicators
  • skilled at partnership
  • committed to their own performance and growth
  • able to hold a vision for themselves and the team.

In essence, they have to be 'relationship savvy'. These are altogether finer skills that most people need help with and that most management training, sadly, does not address effectively. Rather than directing and controlling staff, managers need to be able to operate more like facilitators: bringing the right people together, engaging them in planning the work, mobilising resources, executing the work and managing relationships.

Relationships are delicate. They are built on trust, respect and empathy. When you breach this trust or stop respecting your colleagues and customers, disaster is just around the corner. The next step for business is to realise that business is about relationships. This will be the cornerstone for business in the 21st century.

For several years now, lip service has been paid to business being about relationships, but it has never developed into more than that. Too often in business there is a subtle, or not so subtle, atmosphere of taking, getting and competition. When we seek to get the best deal possible, when we seek to obtain our goods at an overly discounted rate, often at the expense of others, we harm our own sense of value. Value comes from what you give, not what you get.

An emotionally intelligent manager understands it is not about competition, it is about success; and success is where everyone wins - customers, employees and shareholders. When there is competition, someone has to lose and usually it is the customer.

To become a successful manager and leader, you have to start with yourself and understand how you 'do' relationships. Understanding what drives your own behaviour not only gives you a better understanding of the behaviour of others, but equips you with more effective people management tools.

If you do not understand why you do the things you do, and then are surprised at the bad outcome, you cannot change and things will only continue to get worse. This is the process for business right now as demonstrated by the relentless slew of stories of poor corporate behaviour and scandal that fill our newspapers on an almost daily basis.

If you want to create an organisation that really stands for integrity, customer care, respect, relationships, service, community, excellence or whatever the value words are that are important to you, it requires a fundamental shift in behaviour throughout the whole organisation. A good example today is the work that Antony Jenkins, the new CEO of Barclays, is embarking on at the bank, which, at its core, is about rebuilding relationships.

According to the Salz Review, the bank's new culture is shaped around "Barclays' purpose (helping people achieve their ambitions in the right way) and values (Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence and Stewardship) are standards which will guide our decision-making and against which all employees will be assessed and rewarded. We believe that building a sustainable, values-based culture will form the foundation of our long term success".

Doesn't this look and sound much more like a bank we would like to do business with? One that is committed to honest relationships with its customers and really means it? However, the successful outcome will be about Barclays delivering the new culture and customers believing it to be true because the bank will have changed and people will know it to be so.

Interestingly, the Barclays Review's report specifically highlights the findings of a bespoke survey conducted by the Review that says: "The vast majority of Barclays' employees want to act with integrity. They want to exhibit behaviours consistent with the standards the public would expect of it as a major financial institution."

And this is the point of this article. What stops us doing what we know to be right, shrinking from conflict, making the tough choices, having the difficult conversations? These are, in fact, all the attributes, skills and qualities of a relationship-savvy manager. This is what managers need to learn first about themselves, and then understand about others, if they are to deliver the company culture through their staff.

The relationship tool bag

One of the most important tools in understanding relationships is that of good communication. Effective communication is essential to producing high performance and improved results. Without communication skills, conflicts cannot be resolved and effective change is not possible. If you are trying to apportion blame and to criticise rather than reach resolution, there will be no progress. To establish a relationship of mutual understanding - creating feelings of trust and safety - it is important to remember there are no bad guys. Everyone is doing their best given their own psychology.

On an equal footing with communication is partnership. Without it, success is not possible. Partnership builds co-operation and mutuality. The ability to be a good partner comes from our understanding of the dynamics of relationships, the building block of all human structures. Without this understanding comes power struggle and conflict. True partnership is when the other person's success is as important as your own.

An evolved manager has self-awareness, a strong sense of self, understands the effect (good and bad) he has on the people around him and the maturity to take responsibility. He has the ability to respond in a powerful and effective way to his environment.

Lastly, an effective manager needs to be able to take personal accountability for decisions and actions. Without accountability, effective problem-solving is not possible. Accountability frees organisation from the blame culture and builds trust and confidence. Accountability is the first step in integrity. We have seen too many examples in business where there has been no accountability.

A relationship case study

I recently worked with a small company, jointly owned by two partners and employing around 40 staff.

On the surface everything looked fine but I could sense something was not right.  Even though the partners were telling me they wanted to work on their business, they were communicating to me so much more. Their body language was telling me that the relationship between them was strained.

Their tone of voice when referring to their managers and the metaphors they used when describing their business all started to build a picture of a company in choppy water. The ship was leaking and taking on water, and action was needed to avoid sinking.

In the space of the first meeting I had assessed rivalries between departments, a finance department struggling to cope, a culture of blame in the company and factions forming behind each of the directors.

The partners were shocked that this was so obvious to an outsider, and were even more surprised that the level of animosity between them was so apparent to me. On talking individually with them the following day, common complaints emerged:

  • sales are not growing
  • too much time is spent fighting fires and dealing with problems
  • our people are no good
  • it's no longer any fun
  • the other partner isn't pulling their weight.

Taken at face value, it would have been excusable to put in place some sales training and coaching for the managers, particularly in the operations area.

What we think is the problem is not the problem

An old Chinese proverb says "a fish rots from the head down". If an organisation starts to fail, the problem is best tackled by addressing the loss of leadership.

This company was clearly struggling with relationship problems on many levels but the fastest route to business health would be to address the issues between the two partners. I likened their relationship to a marriage and the business to the children - the kids were playing up because things were not well in the primary relationship. Their relationship represented the heart of the business. If they wanted to make it successful, they would have to address what was really going on between them.

We built a framework in which they could communicate honestly and commit fully to the process of resolution. They admitted they had been in a fight, if a very civilised one, hidden from view so no one would have guessed, least of all themselves, but they could see that a struggling business was the evidence. Also, they recognised how the factions, in-house bickering and complaining was a direct result of their fight. Just as when parents start to argue, the children feel the pain and start to act it out.

We worked on looking at the business through the lens of relationship, where all business problems are addressed from a relationship perspective. When they understood what was going on, it was an easy decision to commit to the future success of the company (there was no plan B) even if it meant working through some difficult issues between them.

It took courage but the future of the company depended on it and they knew that something needed to change. They quickly grasped two important principles for effective change:

  • what you think is the problem is not the problem Lack of sales, poor staff engagement etc are easy 'blame' points and can work as effective distractions from the deeper issues. Get to the core issues (hint: it's always a relationship issue) for a quicker and more effective outcome
  • feelings and emotions are not caused by another person This is a key principle of emotional intelligence: while emotions can be triggered by outside events, we have responsibility for how we use them. A lack of emotional responsibility creates a toxic environment in which fear, blame and criticism thrive. My ten key principles of emotional maturity - the Millar Method - helped guide these partners in rebuilding a healthy relationship and establishing a thriving business.

The four really hard questions every manager should ask themselves

If you want to find out what is going on in your business, start with your relationship with yourself. Do your own personal research - an honest assessment of yourself can often help you find solutions to:

  • what issue am I not addressing?
  • what am I putting up with/tolerating?
  • who do I need to speak to?
  • where am I holding myself back?

The two partners committed to answering these questions openly and honestly and things began to shift. They were able to start embracing the principles outlined above and put them into practice. In fact, honest answers to these questions provided surprisingly easy solutions to previously seemingly-impossible situations.

Understanding the stages of relationships

What stage are you at with colleagues? What stage is the business at right now? For managers, this is fundamental to understanding and managing the group dynamics that will play out in teams.

This is a key underpinning of the Millar Method, which teaches that all business relationships go through stages on their way to partnership and success. Each stage has its own challenges, traps and answers. Whether it is the executive board, management team, a department or even a sales/project team, if you know the stage of relationship you are in, you are better prepared to handle the challenges and not be blind-sided by the issues.

These are the stages or cycle that all relationships go through and which any manager needs to understand.

The beginning

This is the honeymoon phase and where all relationships start off. We are totally optimistic about the possibilities of the other person, group or organisation. In this stage, we are only seeing the potential of the relationship - this is the job, the employee, the manager, the department, the acquisition. This can last as little as one day and seldom lasts more than a year.

It is important to appreciate the possibilities this stage shows us while realising there is more to be achieved as it is only the beginning.

Power struggle

Every relationship will hit this stage. In it, we become resistant to the other person/organisation as the differences that may have fascinated us in the honeymoon stage become the source of disputes. We stop believing that the other person, group or organisation has a significant contribution to make for us or that we have anything significant to contribute. We start to question their aims and motivations, so we withhold our motivations and information for fear of losing something. We want to control in order to do things our way. Control always leads to power struggles.

At this stage, it is important to learn the art of transformational communication in business. The way through a power struggle is by learning to bridge the differences by communicating effectively, and integrating and including both sides of a dispute. If we are just making the other person wrong - 'I am right' - nothing can change. This is where people resign and acquisitions most commonly fail. If you don't get through this stage, you sink into the dead zone.

The dead zone

This is the stage in any relationship in which we are being asked to deal with our deeper blocks to success. This is where most businesses are caught today. There can still be some success here but it feels like hard work. On the surface we appear to be doing all right - the business is profitable, we are making our goals - but it is hard going. We are getting by but we are no longer 100 per cent committed to the job. The real issues in the business are not being addressed and we are tolerating things.

We are in the role of doing things - treating customers right, good employee, motivated manager - but we are not being authentic.

The co-creative and partnership stage

It's where we want to be. As a manager, you want your team to be here, for the benefit of good working relationships, departmental success and for the ultimate success of the company or organisation. Haven't we all seen those examples of great companies with great team spirit?

Here all sides of the partnership come into balance, through mutuality, equality and understanding. Our effective communication inspires others to see the bigger picture and our work situation becomes co-creative. We are in our heart and, when we win back our heart, we become unstoppable. We don't see things as problems, only as opportunities. Things happen for us. We are in the flow. People are attracted to working with us. We are great to be around. There is an energy and sense of fun in everything we tackle. We achieve things. Our relationships work for us and, ultimately, we enjoy success with ease.

Learning a new language for a modern management era

Learning about relationships is, therefore, really important, not just in our business life but for our personal wellbeing as well.

It is about learning to tackle every management or personnel issue from a relationship perspective, understanding that it is people's individual baggage - their personal judgments, attitudes, projections, feelings of righteousness, denial, inability to communicate, lack of accountability and dishonesty - that get in the way of success.

The case study above highlights the dynamics that play out in all organisations and groups. Understanding where you are in the cycle and knowing the way through is paramount for managers and can save a lot of time and money by resolving what appear to be intractable business problems much faster - like in a matter of hours rather than weeks, sometimes even years.

Are you brave enough?

About the author

Guy Millar is a trainer and coach, and founder and director of The Millar Method. He can be contacted via


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