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InfoQ Homepage Articles Navigating Complex Interpersonal Relationships: Co-Creating Deliberate Workplace Connection

Navigating Complex Interpersonal Relationships: Co-Creating Deliberate Workplace Connection


Key Takeaways

  • Work relationships are, first and foremost, relationships and should be treated as such explicitly and intentionally.
  • Relationships change and are fluid; make time to listen to the changing needs of your employees and ensure that people are still aligned with the organization and consent to what’s expected of them.
  • Once we’re in relationships, it’s important to give the "we" that is created an identity and common goals and to make expectations explicit.
  • Building a culture of consent (for example, by making space for people to agree to and negotiate expectations of their work) enables engagement, collaboration, and psychological safety.
  • Consent requires that all parties take responsibility for transparent, candid, and vulnerable communication of their needs with an eye toward win-win solutions.

I worked with a manager who said, "Work would be great if it weren’t for the people." You may have felt similar when an employee, co-worker, or boss created a challenge for you in your job. Unfortunately, work still requires people to get it done (even if they’re coding AI to do it for them).

We can see in the age of "quiet quitting" and "quiet firing" how vital the dynamics between people are to the individuals and the organization. They impact engagement and personal satisfaction in the role, the ability to find skilled people who can fulfill roles due to low company reputation, and innovation in the work being delivered.

Just like the companies we work for and the work we do, relationships are complex. Complexity covers four broad topics: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (aka VUCA).

  • Volatility is how unpredictable things are. This can show up in changes in the work we’re doing or the people we’re working with daily (especially if the organization reorgs every year).
  • Uncertainty is how difficult the future is to predict. How often do we know when someone may leave a team or a company until they do? How often can we predict exactly how things will go?
  • Complexity is how hard it is to see a clear and simple solution. People are unpredictable creatures, and though we can make educated guesses, finding solutions to people’s challenges that enable everyone’s voice to be heard is complex.
  • Ambiguity is how hard it is to articulate circumstances now or in the future. Even the best and healthiest teams will struggle to communicate and pinpoint exactly why they are awesome. This makes what’s working hard to replicate. Each individual influences what is successful.

As an employee or leader, you are in a relationship with each other and the organization. You are currently facing the tension of traditional and new ways of working in the call for more work-from-home policies, more work/life balance, and more policies and procedures that make space for you as a whole human and not a professional robot. This article outlines the mindset and actions that can be taken to navigate better those complex relationships, which will lead to a more humanistic way of working.

The Complex Adaptive Relationship Model

The complex adaptive relationship model, or CAR for short, is intended to help people have transparent and explicit conversations about expectations before they enter a relationship and at any time the relationship needs to be renegotiated.

Before anyone moves to the model, folks must be clear on two points: What do I need from this relationship? and Why this relationship? Are you working because you need money, security, or just something to do?

Once anchored in what you need from a relationship, you must answer why the company or person you’re engaging with is the right relationship to meet that need. The act of anchoring in these two core questions makes the ability to navigate the CAR model more straightforward. It’s like having the right knowledge and tools to express your needs to others when navigating agreements.

The model is designed to look like a cube and has three spectra to help explain how each party wants to be in the dynamic and what compromises must be made.

The first spectrum is the focus one holds in a relationship, and it flows from individualism to collectivism. Those who lean toward individualism will tend to put themselves over the collective. It’s easy to assume individualists only look out for themselves. However, healthy individualists realize that taking care of the community will ultimately take care of themselves. On the other end, collectivists put the community over themselves. This can lead to burnout, so, healthy collectivism looks like taking care of the community without sacrificing self. When two people (or even a person and a company) begin a relationship, they could discuss this spectrum and align on healthy boundaries so that everyone feels cared for individually and communally.

The next spectrum is about control. How much or how little does everyone involved want control or agency over their actions? It flows from no/low agency to high/full agency. For example, someone entering into military service would expect to have no/low agency while the military branch they work for would have high/full agency. On the other hand, entrepreneurs enter into relationships expecting high amounts of agency and an equal, collaborative relationship.

The third and final spectrum is that of entanglement. This flows from independent to interdependent. Independent people tend to want to do "it" (whatever it is) themselves without the connection of others. Interdependent people want to do "it" collaboratively. Entanglements have two subtypes that they fall into -- structural and relational. Structural entanglements include things like teams, divisions, locations, and financial and legal agreements. Relational entanglements include the labels we give relationships, like boss/employee, friend, teammate, etc. While structural entanglements are often visible, relational entanglements frequently come with unspoken expectations. The CAR model allows folks to unpack these expectations transparently, set clear expectations (in both directions), and actively consent to the dynamic.

When I map myself to the CAR model, my focus tends to be individualistic; I prefer to have high agency, and I like highly interdependent entanglements. In practice, this means I like to look out for my needs and will make requests (without expectation they’ll be met) only when necessary. I work well on my own or leading an initiative and feel empowered to make decisions and take action without checking in. However, I also like to create transparent and explicit entanglements because I enjoy connection and recognize that I would not be able to function without a community. Despite my best efforts, I am not good at everything.

However, there are times when I must sacrifice some agency or work more collaboratively based on the relationship’s needs. For example, I used to work for some years on a local conference. There’s often a need to coordinate decisions, finances, and actions in such a way that requires I give up agency and put the community above myself. In most relationships, these spectra can be pretty fluid depending on the relationship, the situation, or the existence of temporary circumstances.

If you are using this on a team or with employees, the model can be used to communicate preferences and ranges of tolerance. If you notice tension happening around any of the three spectra, you could bring this to a retrospective and have folks put dots on the scales where they see themselves and then create working agreements around places of significant variations.

Using the Model

Whether we label a relationship "business" or "personal," they are all still relationships. As a coach, this has been a way I’ve thought about relationships in a business for some time.

The entanglements can be drawn using circles for structures and lines for relationships. For example, a team would have the team members inside a circle; the team is a structural relationship. They all have, minimally, a relationship entanglement of teammates and co-workers. But what does it mean to be a teammate or co-worker to someone? Very often, the definitions are different from person to person.

In this example, you can see the different structural and relational entanglements for a conference I helped organize. The straight lines indicate peer relationships, and the arrow lines indicate a power dynamic.

One way I’ve helped teams overcome these entanglements’ implicit nature is to kick off intentionally. Of course, those kick-offs focus on structural things like what work they are focused on and what logistics or processes they will need. However, most of those meetings are about understanding the individuals and finding a way to relate to one another such that neither the team identity nor anyone’s individual identity overshadows the other. They create value and needs-based agreements in intentional and explicit discussions, and establish a regular check-point to revisit them.

This isn’t unique for individual contributor teams only. I’ve also used this model for alignment and cohesion in leadership teams. The idea is to get a clear picture of what it means to be entangled and make that as explicit as possible. When one person says they value respect, what does that mean? What do others mean? How do we meet the respect needs of both/all people involved?

Visualizing Entanglement

One of my favorite exercises to run with teams (no matter if they are individual contributor teams or leadership teams) is one of value setting. This starts by having every individual bring their top 3-5 true values no matter where they are. They wouldn’t likely bring "family" as a value word into work; however, a word like "community" may be relevant in both work and life. Each person shares their 3-5 values, grouping similar values and slowly coming to the top 3-5 values representing the team as one unit.

That’s the goal of teaming, after all, to create the "we" that all the individuals form. And most teams and organizations stop there with the value words. It’s essential, however, to take it one step further. For example, if a team or organization identifies the word "growth" as a value, they might then add the following to make it actionable:

  • Focus on learning from mistakes rather than blaming people for failure
  • Provide straightforward ways to learn new skills and deepen domain knowledge
  • Leverage individual passions and strengths so that learning and growth are engaging

Following the development of values, it’s essential to ask, "How will the team hold each other accountable if any behaviors seem to be in opposition to this?" What actions should the team take if they feel their team agreements aren’t being lived? This conversation often begins the creation of conflict norms. An example of a conflict norm might be "when I notice someone not living up to our agreements, I will talk to them 1-on-1 so that the issue doesn’t fester and the other party isn’t publicly shamed."

Consent in the Workplace

A multi-partner relationship is built on consent. If consent is missing outside of work, people feel hurt, angry, defensive, resentful, and/or violated. At work, it’s not much different; folks can feel all those things plus disenfranchised, disengaged, or exploited.

There are three factors to consider when holding space for consent.

  • Consent — the right to choose what to do with your body, thoughts, feelings, time, and actions
  • Agency — the right for someone else to choose what to do with their body, thoughts, feelings, time, and actions
  • Boundaries — the line where one person’s agency meets another person’s need to consent

Consent and agency create an opportunity to begin negotiating for shared boundaries. Once articulated, the boundary belongs to both people who share equal responsibility for it. The person consenting (or not) is responsible for making their boundary known. The person taking agency has the responsibility to verify that their actions will not overstep the other person’s needs and, once known, not overstep the stated boundary.

Thinking about consent in the realm of the physical, our ability to understand boundaries becomes easier. We can even borrow the acronym FRIES from Planned Parenthood (which uses it for physical consent) and apply it to our purposes at work as follows:

  • Freely Given -- without pressure, force, manipulation, threat, coercion, or while impaired.
  • Reversible -- anyone can retract consent at any time, even if consent had been given before in similar circumstances.
  • Informed -- consent can only be given if the person has all relevant information. Withholding information or outright lying invalidates consent.
  • Enthusiastic -- firm and confident agreement.
  • Specific -- each new request is a new opportunity for consent. All parties should be clear on what is being consented to and how everyone’s needs are being met.

Here are some ways consent could and has appeared in my experience:

  • At an organizational level
    • A job description that says "other duties as agreed upon" instead of "other duties as assigned."
    • More options, where legal to do so, to opt in and out of benefits relevant to each employee with clear and more frequent opportunities to adjust these benefits.
    • Providing individuals the freedom to choose the work they focus on that is in best service to the vision.
    • Providing individuals the freedom to choose their boss or teammates.
    • The ability to weigh in equally with leaders on decisions at any level that may impact one’s livelihood, work, team, or career.
  • Between a Manager and an Employee
    • A boss requests work to be done but also provides the context driving the request, deadlines, and expectations. Meanwhile, they also leave room for an employee to negotiate the expectations deadline and even to say no.
    • An employee feels safe and empowered to request details that help them commit to work or communicate that the original estimates won’t be met without fear of retribution.
  • And for each individual, no matter their role or position in the organization
    • The ability to say no, set boundaries, make requests, and negotiate forward movement.
    • The willingness to hear requests, consider them fully, and ask before assuming agreement.

I’ve seen this among co-workers navigating conflict when they realized the perspective they had wasn’t the whole picture and became the best of work friends. I’ve seen this on teams who decided, "Yes, we do want to interrupt each other" as part of their working agreement. I’ve seen this in organizations that collaborated with staff to avoid layoffs.

I’ve seen and done this as a manager by making space for employees to be on equal footing and communicating when the organization limited my ability. For example, I had an employee who needed to work from home (pre-pandemic) due to family medical needs. Working from home in that organization was at the manager’s discretion. We made a plan together to ensure the employee could work from home and I could do anything that needed doing at the office. Though the organization did resist this agreement initially, human resources and the employee’s team agreed to the arrangement as it was temporary.

Consent doesn’t have to be big or grandiose or even pervasive (though that’s the ideal); it has to be practiced and respected wherever you are.

Creating a Humanistic Workplace

A humanistic workplace is anchored in a mindset that values people. This means we have to put the people before the workplace. The whole of the workplace can’t be whole without the individuals in it. That movement in thinking is the beginning.

We must care for the individuals and the whole, but always the individual first. However, it’s a balance. Much like in our spectrum of individualistic vs. community-oriented, if we only take care of the individual, we sacrifice the whole. And if we only take care of the whole, we sacrifice the individual. There will always be limits.

The idea is to be explicit about those limits, making clear the boundaries so that each individual can consent to them before becoming part of the whole.

For example, if you have an unlimited time off policy but you won’t let people take whatever time off they want, then the workplace is hiding its true boundaries. No employee can consent to a policy with implicit realities because implicit expectations hide information, and thus, any potential consent isn’t informed. And in that situation, the employee risks losing their job should they take off without approval. That means the company is also coercing their employees into not taking time off.

For a workplace to be humanistic, it has to share its power with the employees so that employees can be part of the whole instead of being possessed or controlled by the whole.

On teams, this works the same way. One of my colleagues, an agile coach, brings to his teams a user manual that’s all about how he communicates, the best ways and times to reach him, when he works best, and what sort of things are likely to result in good or bad reactions. He encourages those he works with to provide the same to him but also to each other. I’ve emulated this in team kick-offs and found that from this stance, the individuals can negotiate the best times for uninterrupted work vs. team meetings. They can decide how, when, and where they all work best and negotiate a way forward. This sort of transparent, explicit communication enables both the individual and the whole team to find balance and meet their needs by discussing workable solutions for both.

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