Work is not a transaction

In the world of business, it is now almost a given that developing relationship skills are fundamental to success and achievement.  Genuine collaborative relationships are proving more agile and effective at achieving good results than hierarchical ones.  However, much of the business world still operates as if employment was a transaction and not a mutual relationship.  Many folks also operate as if their associates, collaborators and customers are resources to be mined.  I believe that business is more than a transaction; in the modern economy, businesses do not just succeed on the back of their relationships, in many cases the business IS their relationships.  If we view others, whether they are employees, customers or associates, merely as transactional objects, it will be difficult to hold a picture of them as real human beings with needs, wants, feelings and viewpoints, and correspondingly to treat them as such.

Relationships are central to the work I do.  Uncovering and developing strong social connection underpins the methodology I apply with clients, with a key deliverable being closer working relationships, and I would be remiss if I didn’t attend to my own relationships to the best of my ability.  I know from my experience and my training that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people attempting to create that outcome.  I would say that I am highly observant of how people relate to me and others and relationships occupy a lot of my thoughts, perhaps to the point of being hyper-sensitive to interactions between myself and others, as well as amongst other folks.  I’m an avid people watcher and I think that relationships make the world go round.

One of my core beliefs is that people are not resources to be mined: for information, for their custom, for advice, for leads and contacts, for anything.  Some of you may have worked out from comments on previous articles or Twitter that I love Radiohead.  Lead singer Thom Yorke released a solo album a few years ago and the opening line of the first track goes, “Please excuse me but I have to ask, are you only being nice because you want something?”  Ever felt that someone in your network or workplace was treating you like that?  Taking a cynical approach and asking politely when it suits you is not the same as cultivating and nurturing relationships over time.  Taking a consumerist approach and telling someone that you want to catch up only when you have need of them is not the same as valuing them.  Letting your staff know that they are doing a good job only when you want them to be receptive to you is not the same as caring about them.  Sending your “valued” customers an email with a special offer only when you need to drum up some new business is not the same as being attentive to them.  Everyone knows that you don’t get far these days without being kind or polite, however, kindness and politeness are not the only ingredients to good relationships.  People see through attempts to butter them up when the only time you are nice or make contact is when you want something.

Maintaining good relationships in our work requires some effort on our part.  Whoever we relate to in our work, whether that’s customers or colleagues, I suspect we make the most impact on them when we make a meaningful, personal emotional connection with them.  In order to do that, we need to deploy more than kindness.  We need to get to know a little about what makes them tick.  Empathy, or even more effective, role reversal, will help us to identify more deeply with others.  When we make the effort to place ourselves in the shoes of others, our worlds change forever and when we get a deep sense of another’s thoughts and feelings, we cannot help but relate to them in a gentler and more generous manner.

It is hard to reverse roles with someone if we don’t have some modicum of caring for them.  Why would we want to see things from another’s perspective unless we cared?  This also requires some effort.  Developing genuine caring for another is more than seeing them as someone who could be useful to us; it means we care for their success and well-being even when we don’t “need” them.  If we add people to our networks like some sort of people collectors, they will sense this.  The adage of “digging your well before you are thirsty” is not about storing people up like some kind of resource for the future; it is about growing mutually satisfying connections so that you are part of an active network that brings health and happiness to the whole.  More studies are showing that we thrive on caring for others; my belief is that this is more than liking someone’s comment on Facebook or following them on Twitter.  Caring is an active verb and if such studies are correct, it is good for everyone when we demonstrate care.

It is important to remember that authentic care, the kind that stimulates the “helper’s high” is a self-less care.  Stephen G. Post, PhD, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine says that “this profound state of joy and delight that comes from giving to others….doesn’t come from any dry action — where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense, like writing a cheque for a good cause. It comes from working to cultivate a generous quality — from interacting with people.”  He’s talking about altruism.  I don’t think it’s crazy to think that we might do something self-less for a customer, a colleague or an associate once in a while.

What emerges over time when we actively show our care for others is trust.  Trust is one of the most valuable currencies in business.  Do our customers really trust us to deliver what we promise?  Do our work colleagues trust us to follow up on commitments and to back them, so that they can do their work well?  Do our associates trust us to share and collaborate generously?  I don’t think I’m going too far to say that it wouldn’t hurt us to go the extra mile for people only because they will feel good about it.   You can’t force trust, but authentic caring will necessarily nurture it.

While there is no “step 1, step 2” failsafe method for growing good relationships at work, I’d say that kindness, role reversal, caring and trust are key ingredients.  There are also some guidelines I find useful to remain conscious of in my work.

Keep relationships current.  It can be hard to maintain business relationships these days.  It is easy to get busy and let them go by the wayside.  It is important to realise, however, that relationships are not an add-on to business; they are central to business.  Devoting time exclusively to nurturing relationships should be seen as part of the work we do, not something that we do only when we have the time.  You don’t get fitness credits; in other words, just because you exercised a lot in your twenties doesn’t mean that you can expect to be fit into your forties if you don’t maintain a fitness regime.  Similarly, you don’t get relationship credits.  True, someone may think well of you, however, we cannot ride on those favours we did or that really interesting conversation we had 4 years ago.  We need to continue to nurture relationships.  I’m advocating that we view relationships as more than simply “investments”; something we turn to on a rainy day.  I believe that relationships are worth nurturing purely as good things in themselves, and if, one day, there is some mutually beneficial business that comes out of them, all good.

Relationships should be mutual.  Like any personal relationship, a business relationship should be of benefit to both parties.  How quickly do we turn off people who always seem to take without giving?  How do we feel when people only call on us for help, but when we ask for theirs they are too busy or not interested?  If we are good at relationships, we think of others often; not only what they can help us with, but what we can offer them.

Rupture and repair.  Just like when you go on a first date, you get a first impression of a new colleague or associate and similarly, customers get an impression of you.  If your first impression of them is good, you get the tingles and you want another date.  If  their first impression of you is good, they will be happy to see you again.  Over time, we see things in others or others see things in us which are a little distasteful or we get let down or we sense that we have let them down.  The key thing to remember is that relationships are a function of time and that when there is a rupture, we can repair.  Customers want a response that communicates that you care they’ve had a bad experience with you and that you want them to have a better experience.  Associates and colleagues want to hear you say, “I think I stuffed up and I want to put it right,” and they want to see you follow through with some kind of repair.

I will close with a proverb that I have learnt over the years I’ve lived in New Zealand.  It is a traditional Maori proverb and it goes like this:

He aha te mea nui o te ao? 

He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

What is the most important thing in the world? 
It is people! It is people! It is people!

12 thoughts on “Work is not a transaction

  1. I really liked your article. I am just thinking about the various tools to engage in these relationships. Good old fashioned “water cooler talk”, team meetings, and social media.
    I’m looking into using Google+ hangouts for relationship building within teams. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    Again- great blog. And love Thom Yorke/ Radio Head and the song you referenced!!!

    1. Thanks Sarah, and all those things you mention are all good. We have so many media through which we can cultivate and maintain relationships. My favourite will always be the face-to-face, but in the absence of that, there are channels that we can use that let people know we are thinking of them. I think for me, the main thing is time. Real relationships take time and can’t be forced, but consistent caring and attention will grow them one step at a time.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I think we’ve become a little lazy in how we show we care with personal relationships (friends and family) which has carried through to how we care with business relationships. For example, we’re all guilty of texting birthday messages – what happened to making the effort to pick up the phone and have a genuine conversation?

  3. Great article – I have seen this in action now that I am working on a project that some of my network needs more outreach from me plus listening to what is going on in their context too. – Peter

  4. Absolutely agree. Today I didnt do an ounce of work that would be recognised as such from my job description, but I think I did something useful for a colleague by bringing to work some thinking from off the table, the stuff I am interested in and thought he might find useful and he did. Nothing defined in my job description as a duty to be transacted.
    Job descriptions are ways of commodifying a person, making a transaction out of a relationship, not between the employee and the organisation but between all employees.
    Transactionalising a relationship reduces things to commodities and destroys trust and motivation. Someone who looks to their job description to decide what they are there to do is someone engaged in industrial action, working to rule.

    1. You are on the money with your comments Mark. Your example is a perfect illustration of the thing I would like more folks to get. We need to stop commodifying people, indeed.
      Many thanks, John

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