Back around 2002, I was working as Vice President of Web Services and Technology at Aol. I led a team of around 200 highly talented developers, managers, and support staff and at any given time we had dozens of projects underway. Some critical, such as migrating the entire Aol publishing service to the Web. Others were less critical, for example, developing a personalized “My Aol” service which, while we worked hard on as a clever tool, never gained much traction with our members.
What was consistent across all projects was the need to get along and co-create with our colleagues in other departments, e.g., product, marketing, etc. One of my key mentors, Bob Horton, told me: “You can only get things done working with, through, and for people, and that’s called politics.” So, while working with others, we strived to be “positive and transparent;” and, in practice, we actively managed our relationships as politicians to get things done efficiently and with minimal interpersonal pain.
Our key tool was understanding where each personal relationship stood. Trust and flexibility could vary greatly given the stress and personalities involved. Before we’d go into meetings or send a long email response, my team would first pause to understand where we were in what we called “The Four Stages of a Relationship”. Depending on the relationship status, we’d vary our approach.
Here are the 4 Relationship Statuses:
1. Unconditional trust - The type of trust that is based on assumption that the person/s who you are dealing with are 100% reliable and capable of doing the job well. Examples of unconditional trust usually exist with parent/child relationships or in marriage. Nevertheless, assumptions about unconditional trust can get you into trouble, if the other person in the relationship doesn’t reciprocate or match your behavior and expectations.
2. Trust but verify - This is an old Russian proverb, Doveryai, no proveryai, although Ronald Reagan gets credit for the statement. Trust but verify is the type of relationship where you have a trusting relationship, but you are always confirming a positive result to reinforce trust. Examples of trust but verify are trusting your financial advisors, but always looking at their statements; or feeling good about a contract with an entrepreneur, but reading the details in an investment document. In this type of relationship, you are setting the example at the early stage of the relationship as to what your expectations are and laying the ground for future interactions and growth. This is the most healthy relationship (and is how we survived the Cold War).
3. Doubt but consider - This is the type of relationship where you’ve had a lot of trouble in the past. Things have happened to damage faith, communication, and expectations. You know you are in this stage when the other party in the relationship says something like “this will work out” but you doubt it or assume negative outcomes. Another tell is if the other person says “I’ll get this done by Friday” and you’re doubtful, but willing to wait until Friday to confirm your bias. You suspend disbelief and consider possibilities in DBC relationships. There are degrees to this status, so trust your gut. Many people spend too much time in DBC relationships. They should cut those relationships off, because they are damaged goods. Easier said than done in practice. Maybe you can’t get rid of those relationships because you are forced to work with people. It’s a tough spot to be in.
4. Hit the road or Limit all damage - In this type of relationship, your only goal is to avoid contact, commitments, discussions, or dialogues, because they never lead to anything good. Just limit the damage that could occur. Examples of HTR or LAD relationships include that colleague who consistently undercuts your efforts when you’re not around or the entrepreneur who just wants to pick your brain.
How do you realize if you are in a HTR or LAD relationship?
When you get a sense that the other person in the relationship is incompetent, delusional or outright sabotaging to your emotional state of being. Trust your gut. You might have a situation where you know another person’s interests are not aligned with yours; limit your engagement as much as possible and keep moving.
What do you do if you recognize you are in a DBC or HTR/LAD relationship with another person, but you still want to achieve a healthier work dynamic?
Managing expectations is key. If someone says I’m going to get something done or in by Friday and you know that that isn’t going to happen, be clear with them and reframe to set expectations that are aligned. People over-promise and under-deliver all the time. I know I do. After all, I just declared email bankruptcy. I was too slow to respond and overwhelmed by the volume of email that required timely action on my part. So I archived all my email, let everyone know that I had done so, and started over at zero. To get from a doubt-but-consider to trust-but-verify relationship, you need to reset expectations. If this isn’t possible, cut them off.
All relationships, both personal and professional, are political to some degree. And social capital is important. Get to know these 4 Relationship Statuses to understand the relationships you are in and see if you can make better sense of challenges you may be having. Trust but verify is a healthy way to engage with those in your life; and, if all else fails, remember don't hesitate to limit the damage.