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An introduction to intentional relationship design
Improving teamwork by engineering trust
Intentional relationship design can help us more clearly and effectively declare our intentions in open organizations.
Even in highly mature open organizations, where we're doing our best to be collaborative, inclusive, and transparent, we can fail to reach alignment or common understanding. Disagreements and miscommunication between leaders and their teams, between members of the same team, between different teams in a department, or between colleagues in different departments remain common even in the most high-performing organizations. Responses to their intensity and impact run the gamut, from "Why did someone take our whiteboard?" to "Why are we doing this big project?"
Vagueness and confusion are often at the heart of these moments. And intentional relationship design is one tool to help us address them.
In our open organizations, we can design our relationships to establish expectations for our working relationships. The technique also enables us to set boundaries, uncover communication preferences and cultural differences, reveal personal triggers, and discuss potential biases. Doing so builds trust and common understanding that makes talking about actual work and goals simpler and less fraught.
In this two-part series, I'll explain how intentionally designing our relationships can enhance communication and connection in our open teams, leading to more relationship fulfillment and flow. In this installment, I'll talk about fundamentals. Then in Part 2, I'll offer some suggestions for implementing key practices in our open organizations, describing my own relationship working with a coach as an example.
According to the University of Illinois-Chicago's Intentional Relationship Model Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization related to the Intentional Relationship Model, the IRM is a concept that "defines how a client and therapist each contribute to the unique interpersonal dynamic that becomes the therapeutic relationship." In the therapeutic context, the IRM emphasizes mindful empathy, self-awareness, and a growth mindset—all terms that have become increasingly familiar to many of us in the tech space. In a broader organizational context, the concept offers a vocabulary and behavioral framework for more explicitly declaring our approaches to work, our personal and professional goals, and our interpersonal idiosyncrasies—making them more transparent and, as a result, more easily addressible.
Recently I learned about intentional relationship design via The Effective Engineer author and coleadership.com cofounder Edmond Lau, who wrote about applying intentional relationship design principles to one-on-one meetings. "Without an explicit design [...] it's easy to fall into default, suboptimal patterns," Lau writes. He advises us to notice our default patterns for important conversations, and design our alliances by asking questions and clarifying elements of the relationship:
The problem comes when we don't ask for what we actually want and when we assume that this default is what the other person wants. Human beings may have empathy, but they aren't mind readers. If you don't ask for what you want, people won't know.
Lau isn't the only one experimenting with intentional relationship design in the workplace. For example:
- Oren Ellenbogen, VP Engineering at Forter and editor/creator of the highly regarded weekly e-newsletter Software Lead Weekly, has been using this README for several years when initiating his working relationship with new reports. Ellenbogen uses his document to define his work style and expectations, clarify his role, list what he values most and what will disappoint him, and reveal his personal quirks. Being upfront about these topics has reduced his managerial overhead, he says.
- LendingHome CTO Adil Ajmal advises tech managers to "clearly state and get agreement on both explicit and implicit expectations when someone starts a job, when their job changes, and during performance check-ins."
- Eric McNulty, director of research for Harvard's National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, solved a challenging situation with a project manager to achieve the right balance of detail in reports. He notes that former Campbell's Soup CEO Doug Conant has adopted the practice of "Declaring Yourself" in one-hour sessions with brand-new collaborators.
Getting to know you(rself)
Designing relationships intentionally is a multi-step process. For it to work most effectively, we must first understand ourselves—our strengths, weaknesses, annoying habits, and communication patterns.
Self-analysis exercises aren't self-indulgent or navel-gazing. Understanding yourself well helps the people around you understand you better. And this can enable you to avoid making mistakes that will cause unnecessary conflict, frustration, or even career derailment.
For example, not long ago an executive-level engineering manager shared with me that they didn't enjoy (and didn't regard themselves particularly skilled at) giving meaningful feedback to their reports. The tone this person took was apologetic, possibly even tinged with guilt. In my experiences associating with them over the years, I'd come to notice that their feedback often began and ended with "That's great!" Now, rather belatedly, I understood why.
Many of us regard giving feedback as a fundamental part of a manager's job. If this executive had discovered an aversion to feedback-giving earlier in their career, they might not have chosen management as a career path. Or, they might have chosen only certain types of management relationships (inviting only the most self-reliant and self-confident reports who didn't need much coaching, for example). As such, this person had spent years managing leads and others who required varying degrees of feedback and detail, at varying experience levels. Results, the executive admitted, were mixed.
This example raises an important point about boundary formation—and the way that being more intentional about designing interpersonal relationships supports our success. Often we feel pressured to go with the flow, or take a promotion into management, or give in to someone's demands. Our reasons for doing this depend on many factors: self-confidence, how tired we are on a given day, our flexible or inflexible our work environment, our organization's customs and values, and more. Intentional relationship design protects us from such pressures by giving us an opportunity to clearly and explicitly put others "on notice" about how we'd like to work. While it's not a guarantee, at the very least it introduces accountability into your relationship early on, giving you some leverage. And this, combined with the self-awareness we gain from knowing our boundaries and preferences, helps us identify sooner when a working relationship no longer serves our personal values, and either must change or end.
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