I was working recently at a business school with a group of experienced executive coaches looking at the relational aspects of organizational life. One of the many Chief Execs who attend the programme, asked rather irritably

“How do you justify spending time and resources on this to shareholders?”

It feels to me like trying to convince people that breathing is important to sustain life. How do you imagine things get done in an organization full of people? Do people always simply do what you ask them to? Do they understand and act on every communication? Do all the relationships on the Board seem clear and straightforward all the time?

Businesses are – more than anything else – networks of social interactions, thousands and thousands of them everyday. And thousands and thousands of them have an intent and meaning at the covert psychological level, which is different from the overt social level interaction.

Leaders have to be able to work with this, and I would add that part of the job is communicating the value of this work to shareholders, politicians and other stakeholders.

It made me wonder if there is a chronic negligence amongst senior leaders (or perhaps more amongst shareholders, politicians and trustees – those stakeholders sitting outside the day to day running of the organization and who demand outcomes or performance) regarding their ability to understand and work with with the relational, psychological elements of organization.

To give a simple example:
In Transactional Analysis theory we talk about a “social level interaction” – the overt exchange

Leader “Good morning, George. What time is it?”
George “Nine thirty”

And a “psychological level interaction” – the covert –unconscious exchange

Leader “Hello George, You’re late again”
George “F*** you, I worked until 10pm last night.

Our real, felt response is to the psychological level communication – but what if you are unaware of your psychological intent?

In practice the exchange might go…

Leader: Good morning. What time is it? (Spoken)
George: .You don’t appreciate how hard I work: I’m out of here (Unspoken but acted on)

And the leader is baffled.

The difficult thing is that communication goes through George’s filters and meaning making – his experience, his assumptions his frame of mind – and then together with the leader’s intent – out pops the meaning and out of the organization goes George. As the social theorist George Mead said, “the meaning of the gesture is in the response”

So what to do if you are stuck in a repeating interaction which always ends poorly or confusingly or if you are trying to communicate something and repeatedly being misunderstood

Your weapons are self-awareness and curiosity. Self awareness helps you to understand your own filters and assumptions (What expectations do I have which are hidden? What assumptions am I holding about what is valued here?)

and curiosity replaces ‘what the hell is wrong with George?” with
“I wonder what is happening between me and George, that we have this mismatch in our communication?”

To work with the relational dynamics authentically in your organization takes practice and dedication and most often a trusted thinking partner who can help you challenge your own assumptions. It is likely to pay dividends – perhaps even indirectly the ones that shareholders are concerned with.