Getting the relationship right

in ‘White Papers’, Reports, Articles

Several years ago, I was talking over dinner to a consulting project team about Relate, the relationship counselling charity. There was much interest. The next day I took a chance and sent six copies each of two Relate relationship guides.Within an hour of their receipt there was a complaint: why had I not sent a copy for every member of the team?

The error was corrected and I reflected on the value of these guides. Everyone (and my conclusion then and now is everyone) wants to and would benefit from improving his or her relationship. The skills to do this are well understood by the specialists but hard to access. These skills are particularly important for partners working away from home. And equally important when one is at work. To get things done, a consultant relies very much on the relationship she or he builds with the client’s staff. Organisations want to work with consultants with whom they have a good relationship. Successful management consultancies use relationship management as their primary selling tool.

For recruiters seeking people to join today’s fast-changing organisations, the more scarce commodities are not intelligence and a strong education, but the inter-personal skills that oil the internal machinery and provide successful service externally. These are skills learned at home and sometimes at school. In what follows I consider how home life skills can make a positive contribution to life at work.

The family as a skills agency

There is a wall between family skills and organisational skills. In terms of the mental models people bring to running families and to running organisations these skills are kept separate, compartmentalised. I can think of three reasons why this might be so.

First, home is a private space in which the organisation has no locus. This is commendable, especially as the electronic reach of the workplace requisitions yet more disposable time. But it also stems from a culture which believes that what goes on at home is for its residents only.

Second, the people most driven to get to the top usually put their family (rarely deliberately) a long way second to their careers. Such leaders and managers may be uncomfortable with the open airing of relationship and parenting skills entailed in acknowledging the exchange between work and family life.

Third, large organisations are difficult enough to run at a time of rapid change without taking on responsibility for the home lives of employees.

Synergy is an oft-used word in business, usually in relation to mergers. In the future, the trail-blazing organisations will acknowledge and harness home-work synergy. To my knowledge (and I hope I’m wrong) few organisations appreciate the relevance of relationship skills to the emerging links between home and work. But they would gain a great deal from taking seriously a mission statement along the lines of ‘To build enduring relationship at work and at home, and with customers, suppliers and the community’. This would be a mission that would pervade and enhance its market purpose.

For the skills learned at home are often of a higher order than those learned at work.Accounting is undoubtedly more complex than washing- up. But teaching a child to wash-up is in some ways more complex than teaching a student accounting. The most difficult job the prime minister does is parenting, not running the government. Setting boundaries, being consistent with them, being authoritative and not authoritarian, using positive reinforcement in preference to negative enforcement, motivating people with warmth, love and values are skills learned and practised as a parent; and are vital to good management. Dealing with dissatisfied customers is a doddle compared with handling truculent teenagers. The communication and conflict-resolution skills learned in successful families are far more extensive than those learned in leading organisations. People who have made use of counselling and psychotherapy for personal reasons can find their performance at work improving significantly.What led to aggravation or to feeling kept down or to conflict at home has the same drivers and consequences at work.

The point is startlingly obvious particularly as it needs saying so loudly: organisations and families comprise people; and people need to be able to relate to others to fulfil themselves in both spheres.

Home-work interaction is largely unmeasured – a difficult task but one worth attempting. Consider the French bus drivers recently in the news. Because of a shortage of native drivers, they were recruited to work in Britain. Of their first few months’ experience, they said that they had learned to speak English and to drive on the left, quite easily. But they observed that on the job there was no time to talk, in sharp contrast to their workstyle in France.

Now,what might be the consequence of this tight management style showing little appreciation of the business value of everyday humanity? In the long run, low job satisfaction, taking out work frustrations at home, sickness and even depression may result. Who bears these costs? The bus company, in terms of increased staff turnover and the days lost to sickness. The family, in terms of lower contentment and happiness. The state, for the medical bills and benefit costs from unemployment and divorce, and the crime costs if the parenting suffers too. But these costs are never accounted for as a whole.

We need some notion of ‘accounting for families’ if the full social costs and benefits of different management styles are to be understood. Rather than accounting vertically within each organisational silo, the accounting would run horizontally across the silos and would follow the family. This would then provide an understanding of the full consequences of an action or style in one place on another. Thus, the parenting and relationship skills learned by a family would have their incremental value in the workplace estimated and added to their outputs. Lack of parenting skills, resulting in under-attainment at school with excess costs to their education system and to future employers, would show up in the negative column of the families’ accounts. The value of relationship skills learned at work with home benefits would register positively in the accounts – and so on.

This somewhat mechanistic approach is not a tool to reduce public expenditure by issuing a set of accounts and a bill to family members on death. Its purpose would be to raise our understanding of homework synergy and to strengthen our capacities for change.

Business and the family

The best commercial organisations are inadvertently providing more training and development in relationship skills than any other source. The list is endless. Coaching, mentoring and influencing skills; selfawareness through role plays, video and 360 degree feedback; psychometric tests, from the Belbin assessment of team roles to Myers-Briggs, a Jungian-based personality profile; situational leadership, distinguishing directive and non-directive styles dependent upon the circumstance; frank customer satisfaction surveys; consultative selling skills; staff satisfaction surveys with open feedback on management performance.All these enable us to learn about how others see us and would like to see us; and give us tools to relate to others better. Some even explore our psyches at a limited level and surface some of the positive and negative emotional-drivers acquired in childhood. The psychologist has returned to the work place.‘Soft skills’ in relationship management have become a key source of organisational effectiveness.

All this is driven not by altruism but by hard-nosed competitive pressures. Relationship skills at work matter.Good practice is transferable to the home from work (although some of the benefit may be lost as some of the value is in creating a common psychological language among a work team – a benefit lost with an untrained partner). ‘Situational leadership’, for example, is as applicable to parenting as it is to managing. A child about to run into the path of a car needs to be directed strongly not to do this – it is usually termed ‘shouting’. Placing a child in an environment where she or he can learn (a progressive education model) appropriate to learning to cook. But learning by doing represents too great a risk with regard to the effect of being hit by a car.

Similarly, poor practice in one domain may be carried over into the other. A manager who finds from his ‘360 degree feedback’ that although he values his staff he never tells them so, is likely to be doing the same with his children.A salesman bent on finding fault in a customer company’s equipment as a reason to buy new, may carry this habitual criticism into his home relationships. And, classically, the leader who finds that staff would value clearer boundaries being set, could usefully take this message on with her children.

Best practice in the workplace has other things to teach us in the home. ‘Change management’ is now a well-researched and practised approach to implementing successful changes. We know the cycle many people go through when confronted with a significant alteration to their work – denial, frustration, anger, depression, private and public checking out.We’ve learned that change has to be managed: a clear and consistent vision; listening to feedback on progress; communication, communication and communication; involvement continuous leadership and commitment; project management; all contributing towards building organisational resilience.

How much of this could be applied to fundamental changes in the home? For example, to the arrival of the first child – a major change issue if ever there was one and often the time an adult relationship starts on a downward spiral. First, as a society,we could recognise ‘first child’ as a joyous event heralding a new life and a major and potentially very difficult change.We could be prepared for the cycle of emotional reaction and better understand our present feelings.We could view the satisfactory introduction of the first child to the family as a project – with a beginning, middle and an end, and one requiring something more than laissez-faire, tolerance and hope as a plan.Above all, we could recognise the importance of building personal emotional resilience to change.

The hard, but ultimately fulfilling, work inherent in a good longterm relationship is another work-to-home opportunity for sharing knowledge. Organisations do, at least, know why they exist – to provide something in a manner satisfactory to the owners, staff and customers. But why does a marriage exist? The term marriage here is used as short-hand for all long-term committed couple relationships. What is a marriage? It is certainly not a legal document, a ceremony, a public avowal, or a party, although these may be a good way to start. But to start what?

Reflecting on the traumatic end for the play-off participants at this year’s British Open, a golfing friend said that the reason he loved the game was because ‘it taught you about yourself ’. That’s also a reason for loving marriage. A marriage is the best opportunity for psychic growth.At the moment you know for sure that what your partner says hurts because it is true. At that moment, you have a marriage. At the moment you recognise that conflict in a relationship is an opportunity for learning, when pride and defensiveness have been put aside, when you enjoy being wrong, you have a marriage. The purpose of marriage is the development of the self.

Understanding the purpose of marriage is but part of the considerable agenda many families are wrestling with. The family, as we have known it, is at sea. Negotiating the fluidity has become a weekly task. The agenda on which in our various ways we are all working, wittingly and unwittingly, is long: from understanding marriage, running a longterm relationship successfully, defining the new settlement between male and female roles, providing a sufficiently good environment for child-rearing, opening-up the nuclear family,managing that most difficult and complex family form – the blended or step-family, to working out the trade-offs between career and parenting, a life-long relationship versus serial monogamy, and mass consumerism versus inner peace.

Tomorrow’s organisations

In some ways, the family is ahead of the organisation in experimenting with new relationships and forms. But organisational life is as much in need of reform as is family life. Today,we look back at Victorian medicine and wince at its barbarity. In 50 years time, we will look back at today’s organisational life and wince at its chaos and stress. Organisations really are at a very rudimentary stage of development contrary to the self-image of the ‘masters of the universe’ in the hightech, high stress services sector.

Most of us put up with an extraordinary amount of nonsense for the sake of doing our jobs. The extremes are well-reported: the Stroud aerospace company refusing, on pain of dismissal, its employees an eclipse-viewing break in exchange for their lunch break, being the latest. But it is the mainstream organisation we should focus on, where the combination of corporate politics, semi-competence, neglect of the impact on other people of a decision, ignorance of what is possible, management under pressure to show action, and management roles as cul-de-sacs, produces the overload, lack of control over one’s life, lack of respect, separation and even abuse which is the common experience for too much of their working lives for the majority.None of this is the inevitable consequence of the vibrant productivity of market economics. It is simply that we have as far to go in getting organisational life right as we do with family life. Successful and happy organisations exist just as such families do. But they are not the norms.

Too often, we find organisations which are punitive, conformist, bureaucratic, rigid, stuck in the past, chaotic or insensitive, or the dysfunctional exposition of the person at the top.The cause may be lost in history, may be a management system which rewards and preserves the status quo, or weak governance allowing the political system for the acquisition of power to dominate.

The new openness

Both the family and the organisation have suffered from being closed systems. This has limited the scope for learning.Not being wrong (and having nothing to learn) is valued very highly in most families and in many organisations. The closed system and ignorance as a dominant value have together created more unhappiness and under-performance than anything else.

Fortunately, the appetite for change is increasing apace. It is interesting to note how modern and refreshing the new UK government appeared in 1997 by comparison with its dysfunctional predecessor,

but just two years on how old-fashioned it is starting to look to a public that has rejected hierarchy and authority and is seeking to create its own codes.

The future could be very bright. It may be a very rare time to be alive: when we define for ourselves the moral and other codes by which we live our home and work lives; when home-work synergy is recognised, valued and exploited; and when we are no longer prey to those whose dominant need is power over others.

Ed Straw is chairman of Relate, the relationship and counselling service; board member of the National Family and Parenting Institute; and management consultancy partner at Price Waterhouse & Coopers.

This essay was published in the Demos collection,‘Family Business’

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