Why relationships matter in business01.Jan.2012
Human beings are wired for friendship, so why not put that to good use in business? Here Rachel Robinson outlines how forging close connections with colleagues can spark exciting new ideas – and provide solutions to the most apparently intractable problems.
In the past, relationships have not played a very prominent role in business conversations: there has been some focus about team-working but very little attention on relationship skills. It is almost as if wanting to have relationships, or focusing on relationships, has been seen as ‘soft’ – and being dependent on other people a sign of weakness. However, maintaining contact with others is actually a fundamental, innate motivating driver for human beings. We have a deep need for close social relationships. Over the last twenty years an increasing body of evidence and research has emerged to support this view, demonstrating just how important relationships are to us as humans. It is now known that people with strong effective networks and contacts have better immune systems, lower stress levels, are fundamentally happier, and – perhaps most importantly – live longer than those lacking them.
Likewise, from a business perspective, there are very clear benefits for organisations that pay attention to relationships: people who have friends at work have a much greater degree of satisfaction than those who do not. It is estimated that friendship at work boosts satisfaction by 50% and good relationships also increase engagement. One of the questions in the widely-used Gallup employee engagement survey is: “Do you have a best friend at work?” The reason it’s included is that Gallup has found that having a best friend at work leads to a seven-fold increase in engagement – a startling difference.
But aside from friendship and satisfaction, such close alliances have very clear hard benefits. The first is around creativity and this works in three ways. Firstly, when people come into close contact with others, innovation often follows: by combining skill sets, there is a peak opportunity for something new to emerge. Secondly, and related to that, people are more likely to take risks, and experiment with new ways of thinking, if they feel confident, supported and can safely trust the other person. Thirdly, two heads are invariably better than one when tackling complex problems. Bringing two people’s knowledge and experience together almost always leads to a better result than if an individual is working on an issue alone.
Relationships can also increase the speed at which your business functions. People respond twice as fast to emails from those they know well than to missives from comparative strangers. Other research has shown that employees with the most cohesive relationships are 10% more productive than others.
So all these are fairly clear and quite significant business benefits. And it is therefore no surprise that, during the course of researching Meaning Inc (2007), we found that all the exemplar organisations we studied had one thing in common: a ‘relational culture’, where relationships were valued, considered important, and where people put effort into developing and maintaining good quality ones.
Following on from that research we worked with Diageo, the global premium drinks business with whom we have a long-standing partnership, to find out what it takes to create great relationships. That formed the basis of our Relationships Model, which I explore in the following case study focusing on another one of our clients, GSK
Case study: How to make it happen
What happens in your organisation when you reach a major impasse – when you come across a meaty business problem that, no matter what people do, doesn’t seem to get fixed? In our experience, the most common responses are along the following lines: bring in a new MD (and fire the old one); restructure the organisation (often centralising or decentralising – whichever was done last); or call in the management consultants (sorry!). There may, however, be another solution.
Deborah Waterhouse is one of those leaders who is hard to forget. Her passionate, direct style means she positively buzzes with energy. Having joined GlaxoSmithKline in 1996 as a Brand Manager, she is now their Vice-President and General Manager for Australasia. Within Deborah’s remit is a small manufacturing unit based in Australia. While she has responsibility for the commercial arm of the business, the manufacturing aspects are managed by GSK’s Manufacturing and Supply business. This dual ownership resulted in problems in maximising the unit’s performance and getting the most value out of it for the business. GSK had been grappling with the conundrum of how to manage this unit to best effect for years.
In 2010, Deborah started GSK’s Enterprise Leadership Development Programme – a two-year programme aimed at developing the organisation’s future leaders, which YSC designed and now help to run. It was on the first residential element of Enterprise Leadership that Deborah met Jonathan Box, GSK’s Senior Vice-President for manufacturing in North America. They clicked instantly. Jonathan shares Deborah’s humble, straight-talking style and is known for his integrity and focus on doing the right thing. He’s a good person to know when you’ve got a complex issue to solve – people who interact with him often comment on his down-to-earth appraisal of issues and his solution-focused approach.
Deborah raised the issue of the Australian business when they met again on the second residential element. As she puts it, “Jonathan and I were able to have a very robust conversation about what we did and didn’t like about how the operation was currently being run.” Deborah recalls, “Both Jonathan and I are pretty forthright, honest people, and with that level of honesty, we were able to establish deep, deep trust. We knew that we would never, ever do anything that would damage the other. It hadn’t been possible to solve the problem in the past because people were suspicious and didn’t see the opportunity in any of the solutions; they just saw it as taking on a problem. We had complete trust.”
Both left the residential with a commitment to work on the problem. They generated a range of possible solutions and evaluated the risks. There was no simple answer to the issue, but together with Fabio Landazabal, Deborah’s manager and another member of the Enterprise Leadership cohort, they came up with a way forward. They created a new approach to the structure of the business and agreed how it would be managed going forward. GSK is now much happier with the way the operation is being managed – and feels strongly it was the right decision. In three weeks, Jonathan and Deborah created a solution to a six year-old problem.
Jonathan and Deborah’s story is an example of just how powerful personal connections can be for a business – and illustrates what we at YSC have found to be four key aspects of any successful relationship.
Trust and candour are essential. Jonathan and Deborah’s relationship was characterised by a high level of trust, borne out of their ability to talk openly and honestly about what they feel. They’re both known for their ability to say it as they see it, and their integrity. We’ve found that the strongest links are often forged when people care enough to say what they really think – even when what they say might be difficult to hear. People who have the most cohesive relationships are able to find the words to convey what they really mean in a way that others can hear. They’re also true to their word. They can be counted on to deliver and follow through on their commitments.
Genuine respect – A key to a successful relationship is genuine respect for each other. Jonathan and Deborah instantly clicked when they met – they rapidly saw the value in each other, and it was this connection that enabled them to have an honest conversation about the problem. People who have strong relationship skills tend to think the best of other people and to be less hierarchical in their approach – they recognise the value in people, regardless of their position in the business.
Understanding and empathy – If talking candidly is important, so is listening. Deborah and Jonathan reached a solution quickly in part because they listened carefully to one another and identified the issues that were blocking a solution. Taking time to understand the value that others bring, and their perspectives on an ongoing basis, is crucial to relationships. The people with the strongest skills go beyond just understanding what others are saying: they are able to feel what they are experiencing. They are able to ‘walk in the shoes of others’.
Positive intent – Jonathan and Deborah approached the problem with the desire to solve it and create a solution that worked for both of them. People with strong relationship skills have an optimistic outlook. They approach issues with a belief that a solution can be found and see the opportunity ahead of the problems. They avoid having a transactional approach to relationships and instead focus on the benefits of collaboration.
So, next time you’re faced with a seemingly intractable problem and can feel your frustration levels rising – ask yourself: do I need to pull the trigger and make a radical organisational change? Or do I need to bring about a shift in the relationships I have with the other people involved?