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How can you build good relationships at work?

This podcast discusses how to build good relationships at work and the difference between working in and on relationships.
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In this episode, Claire Newell, Marketing Manager at Mayvin speaks to Principal Consultant Tony Nicholls. They talk about how you can build good relationships with people at work. Specifically in the context of working "on" relationship and working "in" relationship in the workplace, the difference between the two and how they can coexist. In their conversation, they touch on leadership versus management, power listening to truth, and the use of self as an instrument. As well as of course, why Mayvin sees relationships as the key to everything we do.

Transcript of the discussion about building good relationships at work

Claire Newell 1:23
I've got Tony Nicholls back again, to talk about another part of the book about Managing Change in Organizations. Because there's so much in your book. There's different chapters on different parts of organisational life. And one section you talk about is relationships in the workplace and different types of relationships.

And I know that someone on one of our programmes recently had read the book. They spoke to you about it as they had some questions. So you thought it would be quite good to delve a little bit deeper and give a bit more context to what you've written in the book.

Tony Nicholls 1:54
Yeah, okay. Yeah, it was a good conversation. Emma was a recent graduate of one of our Advanced Practitioner Programmes in Organisation Design and Development. And she read the book, and she offered some really good constructive critique actually. So you know, that made me reflect on what I'd written.

And I guess you talk about the different chapters. Relationships really is a thread throughout the book. It really is foundational to the thinking that I think is. That I've written about and is foundational, I think, to the way that Mayvin approaches, change and developing capability.

If we take step back a little bit, you know, why relationships in organisations? Well, I guess, if we accept the premise that organisations are effectively nothing more than groups of individuals coming together. To work together towards some common goal. Then it isn't a stretch of the imagination to say, well, the effectiveness of those organisations will be dependent upon the strength of their relationships.

I think, it's sort of common sense for us all really. If people are getting on well and they're working well together, because of the strength of their relationships. Then hopefully, the organisation will achieve its goals well.

Now, of course, it requires design, it requires processes. Requires tools and products and stuff, of course, it requires all those things. But in essence, an organisation lives or dies by the strength of its relationships. So hence relationships.

What I do in the book is talk about the difference between classical and contemporary thinking in change. So classical thinking is the sort of training that managers get, that's predicated on sort of 70, 80 years worth of thinking, since the Industrial Revolution. Longer than 80 years, of course it is.

But basically, a type of relationship that I think we are focused on as managers more than anything else is what I call working "on" relationships. That's "on" type relationships - the need to influence. So if I want you to do something, for me, the idea is that I influence you to my way of thinking such that you then want to do that.

And that can be done in a nice way. It can be done in an engaging way. But at the end of the day, the basic premise is, I have knowledge, I have the right way of doing things. And what I need to do is influence you to my way of thinking. Such that you then go okay, yeah, that's good. I'll go away and do that.

And it's not necessarily a delegation thing. It could be a managing upwards type thing. As a senior manager, myself, most of the meetings I found myself in might find myself in a meeting with somebody more junior than me, very capable. But nevertheless, they were trying to influence me to make a decision based on the information they had in front of them.

And the assumption there was that they had the answer. And that they needed to influence me to their way of thinking. I often found myself challenging that by saying, well, actually, I've got an a different idea. Or I've heard something else. Or do we have the the complete amount of data in the room here to make that decision. Are you right? Is the question that would often be in my mind.

So, influencing and "on" type relationships are, I think the main way of thinking around how people develop their relationships in organisations. And as I say, that can be done nicely. It doesn't have to be command and control doesn't have to be nasty. It can be done nicely.

The alternative I put forward in the book is "in" type relationships. So the opportunity for us to work in relationship with each other. Which means that I would go into a conversation with anybody. More junior level, peer, somebody more senior than me. With an open mind to what an outcome of that conversation might be.

And the actual focus of my attention partly would be, what's the strength of our relationship? How well, are we getting on with each other, do we know each other, are we attuned to what's going on in the room with each other? As a pair or a group? Have we checked in with each other?

Do we know what's distracting us? Do we have a clearer sense of what we do know. But also, perhaps more importantly, what we don't know. Where the absence of data is? Such that we can then move together to inquire into whatever it is that we're grappling with. Or we want to look for an opportunity with. And come up with something that maybe is different to what any of us might have first thought.

And that we might have brought into the room to try and influence each other about. So there's a difference. A clear difference in my mind between "on" type relationships, where I believe I have the answer, and I need to influence you, versus "in" type relationships. Where I go in with a completely open mind about what might happen.

I've got a perspective, I've got biases, I've got a few. But you will have yours. And I recognise that and I respect that. And I leave the floor open for us to have a really good conversation about that. So something magic might happen. In terms of what comes out of that conversation and the decision that might be made. And I always found those kinds of conversations far more fruitful, and innovative and creative. Where that kind of openness was there.

Claire Newell 7:20
Okay, nice. So the question I think, was it Emma said? Because I think for the sake of the book, you sort of separated them. And explained there's on it and there's in. And she's like, but can't they both happen at the same time? So I think that's where you simplified a little bit for the book in terms of, to separate the concepts. But you're saying, how they both sharpen organisational life, is that you will probably go between the two. Is that right?

Tony Nicholls 7:48
Yeah, I think so. I think what I recognised from Emma's critique was that the separation of the two types of relationship was done, not for effect, but you know, to emphasise the two. To help the readers explore what they look like to recognise them in their own practice.

To recognise when they currently have "on" type relationships where they feel they need to influence. Or are being influenced. To notice what that feels like. But also to recognise when they may already be having those kinds of relationships where where they're "in" relationship. And there's more and open, the more collaborative, more exploratory, more inquiring type of nature to it, and when that might be appropriate.

So it's a deliberate splitting of those two things. Similar in in a way to the way in the book, I split leadership and management. You know, at the beginning of the book I talk about leadership being the only place that people go for answers these days. When actually, most of the real work, I guess, in terms of delivery.

And decision making is a management task, in my opinion, and the focus on leadership over the last 20, 30 years or so has left management practice, I think falling behind. So I wanted to really split that out and say let's focus on management and talk about management practice. And at the end of the book, I do sort of bring them back together. I say, of course, in the real world, we're all leader managers.

And there are aspects of our roles that imperceptively at times, cover both, you know, I need to be both leader and manager at the same time in conversations with people in terms of how that operates. You know, no matter what your definition of leadership and management, I think they show up at the same time.

And I think it's similar with "in" type and "on" type relationships. I split them out in the book for emphasis. So we can explore each and reflect on our practice as to which one do I use the most? Where's my preference? What's my bias towards?

I'm recognising that towards the end of the book I didn't necessarily bring them back together again. To say, well, actually, in the real world, of course, there are times when I feel I do need to influence somebody.

Because the evidence of data is that there's something we need to do about this. Some leadership challenge or a management challenge, there's an answer. And I think I've got it because of the information I have to hand and conversations I've had with lots of other people. I now need to go and influence this senior stakeholder or group of people, to our way of thinking.

And at the same time. The way that I might influence them, will be to develop an "in" type relationship with them. See how I can help us both inquire into what it is we have to do, such that the answer I think I've got that's right, can be adapted for their particular context. So their particular context is, if it's an individual effectively is, is their way of thinking and the way they do their work.

Everything that they might need to adopt, as practice needs to be made sense of by them. So there's something about me creating a space for them to make sense of what I'm suggesting to them, so that they can take it on board and recognise it and start to develop in their own practice. So there's something about how the need to influence and the need to, or the possibility of a more inquiring approach, both come together in the real world, at the real time at the same time?

Claire Newell 11:10
Yeah, it's interesting. So as you were talking, I was sort of thinking, like when you say about that kind of influencing up. And I guess what I'm kind of thinking as you're speaking is. That might occur when there isn't an "in" relationship between the leader who might be that on high figure.

The people on the shop floor might have the data, and they want to tell the leader, you know, this is what you need to know, to make your business more efficient, more successful. And if they're not in relationship, that they would have to do that kind of influencing.

So I think well, how am I going to pitch it to them? How am I going to convince them? How can I know get this across to them? Yeah. So I guess in the absence of an "in" type relationship, then you would have to work on?

Tony Nicholls 11:59
Yeah, I think so. And that's the challenge. I think so. In Mayvin we've written about this. James has written about this in terms of power listening to truth. That's, that challenge of of. It's interesting that because essentially, what that what that phrase suggests is that the truth sits with somebody, you mentioned the word shop floor, it may sit with the shop floor, the people who are doing the work. And what it says is you need to speak up and tell the powers, the powers that be the truth.

And that's a very difficult thing because of politics and the risks that that brings to your job and to exposure and all that kind of stuff. So, you know, we sort of flipped it on our head. And the writing that was done within Mayvin was to say, Well, what about power listening to truth, rather than speaking truth to power? What about power listening to truth? So the idea was that, in that case, how does the powerful develop a relationship with those that without power, such that they can have a meaningful conversation, and those that without power, feel confident enough to speak the truth to the power.

That, for me is a classic "in" type relationship, waiting to waiting to happen. And all of the industrial troubles we see in the world that we're seeing in the UK at the moment, are very much about there just isn't an "in" type relationship. It's all influencing. It's all "on" type relationships, and there's this clash. So I think the opportunity to influence upwards is not just about. It's not just beholden on the more junior person to then influence upwards. The person who's more senior needs to be open to an "in" type relationship such that it invites that person in.

Because they have the power and they have the authority and they, I think, have a responsibility, I'll use the word as a leader, to create the space where managers can come into their environment and their context and feel comfortable. To start to feel like they can influence but also feel like they can inquire together in that space. So very much a collaborative process of developing relationships whereby power is recognised and noted that is there, but it doesn't become a blocker to good collaborative, creative conversations.

Claire Newell 14:19
And that comes full circle back to you saying separating leadership and management because. And, that was kind of your a lot of your point around sort of focusing on management more now. Because of this, you know, being in relationship and noticing and, and having that kind of open ear, to hear what people have to say. And I think that was kind of what your key differentiators between, you know, leaders and managers and why you split the two. It's like in the book as well. Yeah.

Tony Nicholls 14:51
I think an example comes to mind is you know, so I worked within Mayvin for a small organisation, as well as being a consultant I'm also a manager within the organisation. And I bring a lot of corporate experience that a small organisation could usefully look at in as it grows to put in good governance and look at their processes and become more efficient as they grow and ensure that silos aren't created and things like that.

And over the few years I've worked with Mayvin, what I've noticed is that when I slip into "on" relationship mode, as in, I try to influence and I say what we need to be doing is, I think this process will be useful, we need to think about this.

Quite often it's, it's a challenging conversation, quite often, my ideas are, well, quite frankly, rejected. And that's okay. And then I notice that when I, I approach those conversations in a more "in" relationship type moment. So when when I hopefully create a situation where we've got more of a sense of exploration and inquiry together. About what the challenges are within the growing organisation, and what the opportunities are. And we come to these same conclusions together. And then my suggestions for how we might solve some problems or introduce governance, etc. land much more softly and are taken up much more readily.

So for me, there's real evidence that this is still, you know, late in my career, still, the thing I wrestle with, am I trying to influence and work on relationship? Or am I trying to explore together in relationship with my colleagues such that we both create something that's useful and right for, for this particular context within which we find ourselves?

Because, of course, this context isn't just me, it's all of us. It's all, you know, the 14 people that work with a Mayvin, and our wider community. That is the context within which I'm trying to influence. I'm trying to bring something which was created in a completely different context. So I need help from my colleagues, to figure out how what I'm bringing, and suggesting needs to adapt to this new context. So that's a good example for me.

Claire Newell 17:03
Yeah. So to bring that to life to people to kind of like, try and give examples I guess. If you're working "on" relationship that might be you might gather everything in a room and do a PowerPoint presentation and present to them. Or you might send a long email, this is how I think it should be done. I'm trying to think that example I don't know that we need to recruit for new role, or we need a different sales funnel model or something like that, a new way of doing things.

And I guess, if you were to do that in a more "in" relationship way, that would be more saying, can we have a chat about this thing and sitting down together? In a collaborative, exploratory kind of way? Rather than that kind of pitching? I have the answer. This is the answer. Yeah. Sitting down exploring it together, and really being ready to hear the other side. So not going in with that, like you say, that kind of idea of I'm going to influence you, I've got the right answer. And this meeting is about me convincing you of my opinion. More like I think you said before, you know, being really ready to be challenged and to accept that you might not have it all right. But together, you might find an answer. Yeah,

Tony Nicholls 18:09
I think I think you and I have recognised a good example recently. So you came along to one of our Exco meetings, and presented your ideas on your plan, and your progress to date on our new website. And I think what we recognised that that 15 minutes was a very successful interjection with the Exco.

And you got sign off, and you got agreement and lots of nodding heads and very few questions and challenges and just a couple of ideas. But I think we talked afterwards, and we recognised that that was sort of 18 months in the making. You didn't come along, into that meeting, wanting to influence. You came along effectively with a summary of all of the "in" type relationships and conversations you'd had over the past 18 months.

Developing relationships with key stakeholders in the business, throwing around ideas and asking for their opinions. Playing with the ideas, getting to get a really good sense of the context within which you're working and the clients that we're working with. Getting to understand what we do and how we do it. Developing our trust, gaining our trust.

All of that work is "in" type relationship work, which led to a very sort of easy, okay, here's what I'm doing. This is where we're up to, this is where we're going and, you know, senior stakeholders around the table going yep, great. Want to do it. Yeah. So for me, it's a great example, you know, the work that you've done leading up to that, to develop those "in" type relationships.

Claire Newell 19:35
Yeah. And again, it comes back to that. Another thing we talk about in Mayvin quite often is that people have this idea of change being the big dramatic, bold. Here's a new diagram. Let's mix everything up. And more that change is those kind of gradual, small, tiny changes usually to do relationships. And that's how you sustain it.

Tony Nicholls 19:56
Yeah, and I think we recognised didn't we that that the change. As in going from current website to new website is going to be a significant change in look and feel for Mayvins brand. There's risk involved in that, you know, that carries risk. It carries opportunity, but also carries risk. And I think you and I recognise that in that 15 minute conversation.

We recognise just how much change had already occurred in terms of the mindsets and willingness to, to make the leap to something that's going to look and feel quite different. When we first mooted it, we got a lot of oooh nervousness around the table. In terms of well, you know, we took a lot to put this website together, and we've worked very hard on the brand.

And we've worked very hard on what we say and, you know, a lot of work in that. We've been a successful organisation, not just off the back of that, but you know, it's our shop window. And we're now here where they're going, yep, let's get on with this. So I think, you know, change happens gradually, through those many, many opportunities to develop relationships and common understanding of context with your, your stakeholder group.

And I think that's underestimated in terms of how much work goes into that. How much time it takes, and the continuous nature of that. That isn't a once and done thing, you will need to continuously revisit those relationships as we move down this project to, you know, launch a new website, in middle of the year, etc. It's a continuous process.

And that I talk about that in the book, this is not a once. You know, influencing of any kind is not a once and done thing. Being in relationship requires constant attention. Because contexts shift, people's moods change, something happens that challenges their assessment of somebody else, they hear a rumour. All those things that real human things happen that mean, we've constantly got to be checking in with each other.

And I dedicate a whole chapter to checking in and noticing. I dedicate another chapter to noticing. Noticing checking in is a hugely important aspect of our practice. That means that we're continuously asking ourselves a question. What kind of relationship do I have with this person right now, in this conversation today?

Let's not take it for granted that because I've known you for 20 years, it's all going to be okay. Just need to keep checking in. Okay. Is there anything else you want to add? I don't think so. I think that, you know, I think the main thing is, thanks to Emma for the critique. If I was going to rewrite the book, I would probably add a couple of paragraphs about how they both show up much more together than we think, you know, sometimes we do need to influence and be "on" relationship. And sometimes, you know, we've got the opportunity to be in relationship.

And it's I think it's a major part of management jobs to think about relationships much more than they do. Each time they're in relationship with somebody, find themselves in a room with someone or in a, you know, a virtual environment. What kind of relationship do we have? And how's it going? And should we be checking in on that? Because that's critical to how effective we're going to be in our working relationships.

Claire Newell 23:01
That's it. Okay. Thank you. Thanks, Tony.

Tony Nicholls 23:04
Thank you very much.

Claire Newell 23:06
Thank you so much for listening to us today. And we hope to see you next time take care bye bye

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