Relations with co-workers
Relations with co-workers

As I attended a comedy show from a relational therapist, what struck me was how much this applied to culture, leadership and collaboration at work…

You bond with co-workers and you want to achieve goals together, just like at home. You’re in a relationship with co-workers. Others that are different than you. How do people cope with differences?

Relational therapist Jeroen Stek sees couples who deny all differences and bond into a prominent WE. “We do everything together, we like the same things, we’re fine!”
Another way to deal with differences is a division in who does and decides what. Every “I” has their own expertise and is a boss in one area or another: it’s dominance and submission. “He arranges the vacations, she decides on refurbishing the house.” Or one of the two is the boss in everything, and the other one surrenders.

We versus I

It’s the same at work. You’re a close team that ignores or diminishes differences. “We’re the best of colleagues! We like each other! Always.”
Or you see leaders and followers: dominant and more submissive colleagues. Every relationship balances the polarities of together or alone, group versus individual, adjustment or autonomy.

Both the WE-go-always-well-together and the hierarchy of different I’s are coping strategies that aren’t sustainable in the long run. There’s a moment when you can’t or won’t adjust yourself. Or when you’re fed up with organizing everything for this passive co-worker. Or working as your hyperactive, bossy colleague demands.

Then there’s explosion (a dysfunctional fight) or implosion (you withdraw). You quit, you stop doing your best or sharing your input, you resort to indifference if you can. What do you see at work, with yourself and others?

Above Under Opposed Together

These coping strategies of WE versus I’s remind me of Leary’s Rose: a simple model that orders behavior according to Above Under (dominant or not) and Opposed Together (focused on the relationship or not). Every one of us has their preferences and this model can help you see patterns at work. What is happening? And how well does that work?

Do you push for results at the expense of the relationship? Is the relationship always paramount, but is that why you don’t give honest feedback and let things go…? Do you decide too much for others? Or do you lean back and wait for others to take ownership and action?
How much love, passion and energy do you feel for your job, and your team? What’s your contribution?

Are you more focused on people or on results? (Compare Leary to the OCAI culture type matrix, based on the Competing Values Framework).

Back to relational therapy: Jeroen Stek sees the havoc in his consultation room. When are couples really in trouble? Professor John Gottman researched this in his Love Lab in Seattle en discovered that 98% of couples break up within a year when these four patterns happen:

  1. Direct personal criticism and attack: “You are…” (Above Under)
  2. Attacking back: “But you…” (Above Under)
  3. Stonewalling: hiding behind a wall of silence and incommunicado
  4. Contempt: just the look on your face suffices. But also verbal condescending, hateful speech, cynisicm and sarcasm.

Own versus Other’s Interest

Stek uses Kilmann’s conflict instrument; a matrix like Leary’s Rose. Contrast assertiveness (dominance / focus on own interests) with cooperativeness (relationship / focus on other’s interests). Four styles emerge: competing (opposed, above), avoiding (opposed, under), accommodating (together, under) and collaborating (together, above).
The fifth style in the middle is the compromise; negotiating. It sounds balanced but it doesn’t always work well, in my experience. You might agree but there’s little passion, inspiration and energy. It’s an example of fish nor poultry.

How do you achieve both energy, inspiration and your goals – even though you and your colleague are so different? Learn from those who have been happily married for fifty years or more!

Appreciative Inquiry

When the stakes are high and the differences are big, but you want to keep the relationship pleasant, then use Appreciative Inquiry. Look honestly at yourself, your needs and wishes, and at the other. Be respectful, open, and interested. Ask appreciative questions in a non-judgmental way. Why does this matter so much? What are the positive intentions? How to fulfill this need and meet your needs? How could we both be content?

  1. Share how you feel with “I”. Avoid the accusational “You….!” “I feel a bit overwhelmed by your unexpected plan.” Be honest and show yourself.
  2. Investigate, ask and appreciate. “So as I understand it, you’d like to achieve X. Am I correct? How is this important for you? What are the criteria?”
  3. Acknowledge your own share. “I understand that I went a bit overboard with my reaction to your plan. You didn’t see that coming, probably.”
  4. Stay calm and explore solutions. “Under what conditions could you agree with my plan? What matters most to you? What if…? (very powerful to ask for possibilities!). What would give us both energy and results?”

If you need more inspiration on how to do non-violent communication that doesn’t “trigger” people but helps them reach goals, enroll in the online Positive Culture Academy or read the book Crucial Conversations by Patterson.

You can also use Kilmann to decide rationally whether a topic is worth the time and effort to talk about Collaborating and build that relationship.

Is the topic not important to you or can’t you influence it? Avoid!
Is it very important to the other or could you be wrong? Accommodate.
Is it way more important to you (check with the other) and does it require fast action? Compete and push through.

  • How’s your relationship with co-workers? Kind, open, honest and respectful? Or do you need relational therapy?
  • What does that tell you about the culture at work? How could you improve it?
  • How could you ask more appreciative questions?

>>> If you care about culture attend the Culture Change Leadership Workshop on 18-20 May, 2020. We’re looking for just a few more people to join!

© Marcella Bremer, 2020. All rights reserved.