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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6 Responses and Counting...

  • Gerardo 06.05.2010

    I think you have a really hot bottom here. Still, the notion has to be distilled a little bit more or in other words, it withholds a lot of potential. OST looks at functions instead of roles and parts inside organizations, which already I find more appropriate. However, your notion of ‘relationships’, for me, shades another light to the process of collaborative, creative or participative work.

    I recall once, braking away from a relationship and the other being in relationship sharing the metaphor that we were two amazing components, like chemical components, it was just that our relating had ended creating a radioactive compound.

    Yes, is true that looking at the relating, without placing judgment on the individuals is a healthier point of view to build relationships. However, I do wonder how this could really work (ex. looking for creative relationships not creative people). It seems to me, that in order for that to happen we can only take care of the environment, the field I think you call it, and within that then pay attention to the kind of relating that intentional environment is affording.

    Anyhow, I guess my only clear feedback is that there’s something in the notion of “managing relationships nor people” that really touched a cord inside.

  • I meant to say: looking at the process of relating, without placing judgment on the individuals is a healthier point of view to build engaging organizations (not only relationships).

  • Yes, contemporary organizations are fundamentally about binding/combining/reacting/interacting or “valence” relationships. There are five types that I’ve found: Economic, Socio-psychological, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological. Each type has two forms, one tradable or “fungible,” and one that enables common sensibility, common values, common understanding, and common volition to action, the “ba” form relationship that creates “place” in organization.

    I actually defend that thesis next Friday, and it’s available here: … but you knew that, right? 🙂

  • I was happy to see that it resonated with you, Gerardo, and like your framing. I’ve had only glimpses of how this could work, but it feels right in terms of a general stance to take. I’m keen on exploring how having such an intention translates into practice in different contexts.

  • Hey, Mark…good luck with your defense. I’ve found myself referring to your thesis often over the past several months, so thanks!

  • Modern Corporations have already perfected that notion. They are all about relationships instead of individuals. A grouping of relationships that frees the “owners” of responsibility for selfish actions.

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