Managing relationships not people

  • “The smallest divisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs.” –Tony Kushner, Angels in America

    A few weeks ago, Rennie and I had the pleasure of convening a conversation about expressive change with a handful of folks in Montreal’s NDG neighborhood. It was one of the more engaging group conversations we’ve had to date, partly, I think, because of the geographic commonality and relationships that were already present in the room. We explored four organizational mindsets during the conversation, one of which we didn’t have much time to fully dive into, but that I find particularly intriguing and thought I’d explore further in this blog: a movement towards managing relationships rather than managing people.

    If, as writer and consultant Michael McMaster puts it, organizations are no more than a network of relationships at their core, it makes sense to me that we should pay a lot more attention to the organizing power that relationships have.

    At COCo, we have found that we are much more robust as an organization if we have relationships rather than people in charge of major work areas. And as we’ve paid closer attention to what it means to be doing work in relationship, we’ve begun to notice important nuances. For example, it seems that working in pairs results in richer collaboration than working in groups of three or more for many of the tasks we’re doing. On the other hand, larger groups are more fruitful when we need to dig into complex issues more deeply, after some of the initial nitty-gritty and number-crunching work has already been done.

    Evaluations are also interesting to explore from a relational perspective. What would happen if we focused less on what individuals are doing to contribute or detract from the work of the organization and more on the effects that our relationships are having on our work? If something isn’t going well, instead of our first reaction being to examine deficiencies in the person responsible for fulfilling the task, what if we first examined the relationships touching the task and then experimented with ways of shifting those relationships in a way that might better feed the quality of the work? In my experience, a person can work very differently depending on the chemistry they have or don’t have with their colleagues.

    What if we looked for skilled relationships instead of skilled people?

    What if we looked for creative relationships instead of creative people?

    What if we looked for accountable relationships instead of accountable people?

    We’d love to hear from people who have experienced this kind of shift, even if only briefly. Have you approached a project or a problem in a relational way, and if so, what were the specific practices you used to help you to do this?

    June 5th, 2010 | Tana Paddock | 6 Comments

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