• Phil Cole

The Function of Relationships (Part 3, The Basics)

Welcome back to The Basics. Check out the posters for the function of relationships here.

The Basics Posters - Relationships
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The second function in the definition is the process of building relationships. Relationships are the interactions that members have as they perform the work, repeated over time until they become patterns of behavior. They are the way that multiple people work together to turn the vision into reality. If vision is the “what” or direction of the group, then relationships are the “how” or momentum towards that direction.


To understand relationships, we have to break apart what happens between members of the group any time they interact. At the most basic, any interaction between members of the group is made up of a number of behaviors, performed towards or upon another member. Added together, these behaviors create interactions from a simple conversation in passing to a complex meeting that affects the performance of tasks in the future.


These interactions are both how work is performed in a group – literally, the difference between individuals doing tasks alone and a group working towards a shared goal – but also factors that affect how the group performs. In other words, if members of the group use “good” behaviors in their interactions, then they can accomplish more. If they use “bad” behaviors, then they accomplish less.


When these interactions are performed multiple times, over a period of time, they form patterns of behavior. These patterns of behavior or habits are relationships. Relationships carry forward; once established, they determine how work is performed in the future. Relationships are hard to change. If a group creates good habits, then they will continue to be productive into the future, and the opposite for bad habits. This is the magic of leadership: when we act upon relationships, we affect the quality of the group’s performance even after we stop intervening in a specific area.


Just as with the meaning-making of vision, individuals constantly practice this function to build relationships. Without guidance through leadership, relationships are determined by individual personalities, desires, preferences, and histories. With leadership, good behaviors are encouraged and bad behaviors are discouraged so that the group builds productive relationships. This is the unique role of leadership upon the function of relationships.


We don’t have enough space to get into this right now, but the sum of all relationships in a group is organizational culture. Understanding this, and how we act upon relationships, allows us to successfully change organizational culture. For a quick introduction to organizational culture change through the functional approach to leadership, check out this two-part series on the subject.


Our first step in acting upon relationships is to see what occurs in an interaction. To do that, we need to break the interactions that make up the relationship down into component pieces. There are two broad categories: interchange and emotion. Both types occur in any given interaction.


Interchange relationships are exchanges between people. These are literally transfers of something, physical or not. There are several interchange elements or things that can be exchanged. These are: products and resources, information, decisions, expectations, incentives, knowledge, and maintenance and facilitation. These elements are passed between members of the group. We recognize the interchange by observing where and how the element is exchanged. When members of the group exchange elements repeatedly over time, they form an interchange relationship.


The way that these elements are passed between people determines how members can complete their work. If members have what they need – from physical materials, to decisions about the details of the work, and every other factual aspect of the task – then they can contribute to the group effort. If these items are not exchanged properly, then the members can’t perform and contribute properly. Leadership creates the formal or informal processes to perform these transfers in the appropriate way. This is how interchange relationships limit the success of the group, and how leadership allows the group to build more productive interchanges.


The second type of relationship is emotion relationships. These are the feelings and thoughts we have about others in the group. Unlike interchange relationships, which are passed between people, emotion relationships exist only in the person who experiences them.


When we have an interaction with another member of the group, we experience feelings about that person, and we build a set of assumptions about that person’s motivation and intents. Over time, these assumptions solidify and cause us to pick behaviors based on what we expect and assume about another person. If we think that someone is committed and hard-working, we will treat him or her differently than if we think that someone is lazy and does not care about the group. This is how emotion relationships affect our behavior and limit the group’s success.


As leaders, we cannot see emotions. They are the internal experience of each member of the group. However, we can change the context and related facts for each interaction, and we can therefore influence the emotion relationship.


Every interaction includes both interchange and emotion components, and each type affects the other type. Once we can see which types are where in a relationship, then we can intervene by acting upon the type with the appropriate strategy. Acting upon a relationship requires that we identify the desired relationship, find behaviors that we can introduce (which we will discuss in the last function, learning) and plan the specifics of the intervention: triggers, initial behavior, and pressure. With these details in mind, we can then create more productive relationships. As we make incremental changes in relationships, the group will be able to accomplish more because members will interact in more productive ways.

The challenge of understanding relationships is to see the components within an interaction. To practice this, try the SEEING EXERCISE The Components of a Relationship.


Our ability to improve relationships beings when we can see what happens between members of the group. Seeing relationships allows us to find opportunities where a different interaction could help the group be more successful. We dive into the full process in Redefining Leadership.


We will explore the last function, learning, in the fourth part of this series. Learning, or the exploration of new and better behaviors, is both the path to an organization that learns and also the way that we become better leaders.

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This SEEING EXERCISE reveals the natural, ongoing, and distributed functions without leadership's intervention.