“That is it, your toy is mine for the rest of the day.”
And this was a great afternoon!
What might this exchange that is probably verbatim from a grownup (who shall remain nameless) in my home represent? How might we apply these lessons to managing people? Relationships matter. This might seem brainless but there is deeper and deeper neuroscience to support this conclusion, and what is true for a three year old is equally relevant for a 30 or 60 year old team member. Humans learn and grow only in relationship with others. The literature on attachment in children and learning outcomes is very clear, from early studies we know that learning occurs in the context of relationship. Not sure?
What was the last thing you learned completely outside the context of a relationship? Maybe you read something online and self tutored your way to a solution? Not so fast, reading ability eminates from a complex interaction that began when you learned to read. Whether it is phoneme recognition or a whole word approach you mastered your reading skills in connection with another person. You may have found the topic you recently read because of a friend’s recommendation (and sites like Social Reader are banking on this type of sharing) but the chances are very good that whatever you read recently you did because of relationships you value.
In the workplace there has been an approach to understanding this reciprocal interaction within relationships between a worker and a manager or peer: Relational Cultural Theory (RCT). This approach has been used to frame the interactions between individuals as opportunities for growth, not only of the subordinately positioned individual but also for the individual in the higher status position. RCT argues that benefits and learning occur for both parties when genuine relationship is experienced and nurtured. Genuine relationship requires authenticity by both parties. Without it, the real growth can not occur.
Consider a time when a close friend, in anger and frustration, has called you out for some disappointing behavior. Probably the experience was painful, and probably you became defensive. But if you compare this reaction on your part to how you felt when a near stranger, or a person who holds themselves aloof from you, critiqued your performance there is a strong likliehood that you were more able to take in the criticism from the close friend than you were the stranger. Authenticity is being honest about our feelings and vulnerable towards others. We tend to believe that this requires being nice or gentle but real relationship, and real learning, actually happens after a bump in the road. Smooth sailing in a relationship may seem like a goal but actual learning happens after interruptions in our relationships. These “ruptures”, as they are referred to in RCT, lead to opportunities to either abandon or repair a valued connection. If the relationship connection is repaired then the relationship will increase in relevance and importance to us. We will begin to internalize and consolidate information more quickly and deeply than we might otherwise do. In other words, when we seek to reconnect after a break in our relationship we are deepening not only the relationship but also our knowledge.
Doing this within work environments can benefit from reflective processes that support and equip leaders to recognize the value of relationship not only for what outputs it can leverage but for the processes it enables in and of itself. There have been a variety of ways in which RCT has been studied to examine mentorship, management, and performance improvement. If your leaders are showing genuine interest in others, spending time sharing stories about the weekend and using this to segue into ways in which follow ups might be executed more efficiently, chances are there are going to be tangible benefits for your organization. There might also be some fall out, as those being led feel slighted or cast aside in the rush of organizational growth. Use these tensions wisely, and authentically, and RCT argues it is possible to not only improve individual performance but to improve organizational functioning. Miss these cues and squander opportunities for repair and the investments into carefully nurtured relationship will never be recouped. Looking for advice on how to use the science of attachment and learning in your organization? I’d love to connect further, but first I have a toy I need to return.
Want to read more:
Dutton, J. (Ed.), & Ragins, B. (Ed.). (2007). Exploring positive relationships at work: Building a theoretical and research foundation. Mahwah, NJ US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.