Matthew Frost writes: There’s no doubt about it. Companies and charities are going through incredibly challenging times—unprecedented financial pressures, moving everyone to remote working, ongoing crisis management and uncertainty with no end in sight.
There’s a silver lining though. Many are also observing newfound attentiveness to staff wellbeing and relationships, bursts of unexpected creativity, and a rediscovery of core purpose. I hear regular stories of organisations achieving seven years of change in seven days.
A couple of weeks ago WeAreCompany conducted a poll asking people whether their work relationships had worsened, stayed about the same or improved. We were surprised by the results. 49% answered ‘about the same’. 1% answered ‘worsened’. And 50% answered ‘improved’. During our Webinar on ‘reimagining our organisations relationally, during this time of crisis’, participants observed that they were rediscovering the importance of relationships at the heart of organisations. One participant commented, “For us, like hand-washing, it has revealed that we didn’t do enough people connection before”. Others spoke about “waking up to the reality that we were doing transactions not relationships”.
At WeAreCompany we believe that this crisis, presents us each the opportunity to rediscover the central importance of thriving relationships as the foundation upon which our companies and charities stand.
The roots of the word ‘company’ are found in the Latin terms ‘com’ and ‘panis’—literally meaning ‘with + bread’. So, the origin of this universal label for our organisations lies in the idea of sharing, breaking, eating bread with others—all distinctly relational, human, even spiritual acts. Think about the word ‘organisation’ for a moment. This term, too, is all about the organic relationships that unite complex parts into a fruitful whole.
I think most of us know intuitively that relationships should be central. Organisations are made up of people after all. We know that when people are grounded in their innate identity and humanity (love of God) and when they are in flourishing relationships with others (love of neighbour), then our organisations will flourish too. Yet, wherever you look—in the private, non-profit and state sectors—the vast majority of our organisations are typically run as hierarchical, ordered machines. If this is our dominant metaphor and frame we end up prioritising efficiency, transactions and control, as opposed to thriving inter-personal relationships. We replace relationships with transactions.
One of my favourite leadership authors, Margaret Wheatley wrote:
These days, a different ideal for organisations is surfacing. We want organisations to be adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent – attributes found only in living systems. The tension of our times is that we want our organisations to behave as living systems, but we only know how to treat them as machines.
At Tearfund I drew heavily on a biblical, restorative narrative to guide the charity’s work and approach. As I see it, the purpose of our organisations is to restore broken relationships—of those we serve, of our staff, of our investors and donors, of our partners—with God, self, neighbour and wider creation. This relational perspective is the inspiration for what we are doing at WeAreCompany.
Along with so many other aspects of being a whole-life disciple of Christ, the cultivation of life-giving relationships requires humility, diligence, a lot of practice and a learning mindset. We find this hard. A few years ago I read a book called Beyond Nice: Creating Excellent Working Relationships in Churches and other Christian Organisations, sent to me by the author Martin Woodroofe. I was struck by two of Martin’s observations. First, Christian organisations often find it more difficult to manage people well than businesses do (when you’d think they should be better). Secondly, in his experience, this is in large part because we fail to go ‘beyond nice’. We mistakenly equate loving with ‘being nice’.
Niceness unintentionally corrodes relationships by smothering all conflict, criticism or ‘negativity’. These are swept under the carpet, out-of-sight and unresolved, leading to two common outcomes. First, a ‘passive aggressive’ culture spreads. Here it looks as if everyone is in polite agreement, but in reality, many are not and work this out in a myriad of ways, often hidden and indirect, because nothing else seems to work. Secondly, unexpected and cataclysmic breakdowns in relationships become more likely, as hidden and unresolved tensions reach boiling point. These have a tendency to spill over into the wider team or organisation as people take sides, sometimes followed by a domino effect as other latent discontents are thrown on the table. In contrast, healthy, life-giving relationships embrace conflict and disagreement as opportunities for reflection, learning and growth.
The problem is we struggle to get intentional and specific about strengthening relationships. We don’t really know how to assess and reflect on relationships. We don’t know how to analyse and measure relationships. And as a result, we revert to a narrow menu of things to do: be ‘nicer’ to one another; meet for a few more meals; follow the generic advice on team-work; smile and wave. We need to find ways to go far beyond polite sentiment and motherhood statements.
This is why two friends and I launched WeAreCompany a month ago. Our aspiration is to do all we can to help charities and businesses get intentional, analytical and specific about strengthening relationships.
How might we begin to do this? At the outset we can think about relationships on 3 levels. These levels give us a framework to understand, assess, even measure relationships.
First we consider the raw material or foundation of relationships—call it ‘emotional intelligence’. Daniel Goleman, author of the excellent leadership book Emotional Intelligence: Why it matters more than IQ, focuses on the central importance of self-knowledge (identity, who I really am) and social awareness (empathy). He also spotlights practical habits and skills that help us here (e.g. active listening). I think his observations run parallel with the great commandments, to love God and neighbour.
Second we need to understand how different contexts affect relationships. However strong our emotional intelligence is, a number of contextual factors have the potential to both weaken or strengthen our relationships with others. We use the relational proximity framework here to bring insight and focus (developed by the Relationships Foundation). We explore five drivers of ‘relational proximity’.
- We consider the quality and nature of communication and how it builds that sense of connectedness. Do the ways you communicate (face to face, email, text, etc.) help avoid misunderstanding and create a sense of connection?
- We think about the time and story of a relationship. Do the various interactions over time build a sense of momentum, growth, stability or ultimately a sense of belonging and loyalty?
- We consider the types of contexts that shape how we are known and our ability both to read a person and to manage a relationship. Do we both know enough about each other to manage the relationship effectively?
- We think about power and how it’s used and experienced. Is authority used in ways that encourage participation, promote fairness and convey respect?
- We consider purpose, values and goals, and the degree to which they are shared in ways that bring synergy and motivation to a relationship. When examining the purposes of an organisation and its people, how deep rooted are their intentions or are the two parties pulling in different directions?
Third we need to focus our attention on the behaviours that should become visible once relationships are really thriving. When I work with leadership teams, I invariably focus on the following: how well we manage conflict; our propensity to forgive and to apologise; and our willingness to be transparent and vulnerable with one another. Patrick Lenzioni (in his excellent book The 5 Dys-functions of a Team) highlights five behaviours that are critical to effective, relational teams. The two foundational behaviours upon which the others rest are: vulnerability that builds trust; and ‘mining’ for conflict.
If you’re interested in learning more please join our current Webinar series on ‘Reimagining our organisations relationally, in this time of crisis’, on Thursday April 23rd, 3–4 pm following this link: https://wacwebinar-3.eventbrite.co.uk, and Thursday 30th, 3–4 pm following this link: https://wacwebinar-4.eventbrite.co.uk
Matthew Frost has always held a deep interest in strategy, and has worked in many contexts helping companies and charities in organisational design and effectiveness. Amongst others, that led from corporate finance with JP Morgan, into the third sector with Medair in Somalia and Afghanistan, and onto management consultants McKinsey & Company.
More recently, he was CEO of Tearfund for 10 years, leading over 1,500 staff globally, before leaving in 2015 to pursue a wider range of interests. He is a member of the Archbishops’ Council for the Church of England.
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