Far too many leaders and teams rely on talent, intense training, or just simply beating the hell out of their staff or teams in order to get the results that they are looking for. That may work well if you are an entry level individual just getting into the military or a watching a non-realistic film that acts as a half-ass motivational tool. The fact of the matter is that in order to get groups of people to work well together, while also carrying out the core values set by the leader(s), success begins and ends with relationships.
Effective relationships create higher levels of drive, cohesion among team members, and strengthen the bonds of trust that are all crucial to the success of a group. Unfortunately, many leaders, especially those in athletics, don’t seem to grasp the importance of this skill.
Skill? How is a relationship a skill?
If a skill is “the ability to do something well” then just like all things [running, jumping, throwing], it has clear pieces to it that must be mastered and continually re-trained. Someone is not just “good” at relationships, because every relationship is different. Hell, you can make the argument that each moment in a relationship is dynamic - always changing, yet with a core set of principles that it relies on to make it work effectively. But those who understand its importance will see intrinsic and extrinsic benefits that far outweigh those groups that who are just talent fill or skill oriented.
Before we discuss what the guiding principles are to an effective relationship, let's briefly examine the things that lead to an ineffective one.
In athletics, lots and lots of coaches that don’t understand the importance of relationships have the following issues that act as blocks both their teams and their own success:
Stubbornness: “This is the way that it is and I’m not going to change. That kid complains about how hard things are for him - that’s bullshit.”
Unwillingness to Communicate: “I don’t need to talk to that kid. He just needs to suck it up and do what I tell him to do. If he can’t respond that what I am telling him, it’s his fault.”
Lack of Empathy: “I did the same thing 20 years ago and it worked for me. It doesn’t matter how or what the athlete feels.”
If you have been on a failing team, you more than likely can recall when you ran into this type of leader. These attitudes bring about the following reactions:
“Coach doesn’t give a shit about how bad I feel and how miserable I am right now” [both physically and emotionally]
“You can’t talk to coach because he won’t listen” [either because they don’t want to hear it or because they only want to hear answers that they want]
“I wish coach understood where I was coming from. He doesn’t seem to get me at all” [this may be because they have insecurities of their own that they are trying to hide and having an empathetic view of the situation may show weakness]
Great leaders and managers however, possess the understanding of how important it is to have a relationship with someone who works with or for them. They get the fact that in order to get people to do their best, they have to show some vulnerability once and awhile, strike up a conversation, and show [not falsely, but legitimately present] that they give a shit. Two shits even.
The second that the bonds of a relationship start to strengthen, performance will begin to increase, levels of enjoyment will rise, and effort [which decreases drastically when teams are working with a leader that has no relationship with them] will start to grow.
Effective relationships have four core principles, each is equally important and if one of these four were to lessen in its importance, then a strength of the relationship will weaken.
All relationships have to start out with the understanding that either someone involved or both parties can be hurt by engaging in it. You start dating someone, there is a chance that you are going to break up. You start at a firm, there is always a chance that you are going to get fired. You make the team, no matter how good you are, there is always a chance someone else is going to take your spot and you end up cut. We define vulnerability as the willingness to open up to being hurt. When we talk about opening up, that starts with sharing stories that connect to shared values. Maybe you and your counterpart had a similar upbringing, similar family lives, or have the same religious views. Sharing these things takes vulnerability, since you may not want people to know certain things about your life. Of course there are things that you will always want to keep private, but sometimes just showing that you are you willing to talk to others about yourself outside of the situation you are in can show the other party that you are willing to talk about yourself in a deeper fashion, can get others to open up.
Nothing positive can begin without starting on a platform of honesty. No one wants to be lied to. Even if the conversations are tough, it’s better off for both parties to have an open dialogue with the air clear, than one where the stench of bullshit fills the room. You can’t fix a problem in which the facts are not clearly presented. You can’t help someone if you really don’t know what is going on. And although the truth may hurt at times, that truth is better than the lie.
Also, remember that honesty comes from observation, not judgement. Telling someone that they suck is judging someone. They may be struggling with something that you don’t know about. They may be doing one simple thing wrong that is leading to poor performance. Whatever the case is, by simply observing and saying, “hey, I see that you are struggling, let’s talk about that,” is the much more effective, non-confrontational way of being honest that will lead to effective and positive conversation.
EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION [both verbal and nonverbal]
Every relationship expert will tell you that communication is the key to an effective relationship. I believe that to be true, only after you having made the decision that you will be vulnerable and honest with your counterpart. Once these two things are established, then effective communication can take place. I put an emphasis on the word effective because you communicate with people everyday. From a simple glance across the room, to checking out at the grocery store. But effective communication that results in having a healthy and productive relationship for both sides means that you are willing to have a real conversation because you have each let your guard down somewhat, and then are willing to engage with each other physically. This does not mean sex. What it does mean rather is that no one trusts another person if they don’t look them right in the eye and fully engage in conversation.
Even if you need to kneel down to look directly into someone’s eyes, the effect of eye-to-eye contact is invaluable in establishing conversation. Think about when you had a conversation with someone who is not looking at you - how did that make you feel? Probably disrespected, upset, and feeling like no one was listening. No one should feel like that. Effective relationships start with good eye contact, and a body language that says, “I’m fully present and available for this moment we are about to have.”
When it comes to verbal communication, again, observe, don’t judge. This includes listening and speaking through an observational lens. You are not judging, you are attending to what is happening in the moment. You are responding calmly, yet firmly to what is happening - even when you have to put your foot down to make a point. When in doubt, just listen. Especially when someone is going through a troubling time, they are just looking for someone to hear their concerns, whether they are valid or not. The last thing you want to do [and the thing that could potentially damage the relationship] is having your counterpart walk away thinking that they could not speak to you because you were not listening or responding in a way that was respectful, where the conversation was good or not.
Most people believe that trust is something that needs to be earned, just like respect. “You need to earn my trust” is a statement that most coaches say at the start of a new year. The problem with that is first, leaders need to realize that they need to be trusted as well and second, beginning the relationship under the veil of trust is better than having to constantly question themselves. Much of this comes from the idea that during the beginning phase of the relationship, promises [aka commitments] are made. They may be made when you are first hired at a new job, or when you are in the middle of the recruiting process. These commitments hinge on the fact that both parties are willing to be totally available and fully engaged, and that each person will keep their word.
Trust begins to fall apart when two things happen: someone does not hold up their end of the bargain and then commitments are broken. If you lose a starting spot on the team because you did not put in the work needed, that is fair. However, bonds of trust can begin to tear when you are benched without proper explanation and it breaking the deal that you made in the recruiting process or the start of the season. Conversations about trust issues are difficult ones to have indeed. However, if communicated effectively and fairly, whether the result is positive or not, not going back on your commitments is the key to making transitions smooth and keeping the relationship intact.
As we said in the beginning of this piece, building good relationships is a skill. Like any the journey to mastering any skill, it requires practice and failure. We have all failed at a relationship at some point. And when we do, just like we should do in everything that we fail at, we regroup, reexamine, then get back on the horse and try again. If your team is struggling, whether it is in an office setting or out in the athletic field, it is never a wrong time to start to strengthen the bonds you have with your co-workers and/or peers. Remember that you can be the smartest, the fastest, maybe even the most skilled, but without putting relationships first, you will never obtain the goals that you want to obtain. Because relationships are the glue that hold together great teams.
4 STEPS TO AN EFFECTIVE RELATIONSHIP
STEP 1: Be vulnerable. Open up to the other person, share personal stories, and find areas in which you have shared values. Those values are the building blocks of a healthy relationship.
STEP 2: Be honest. People know when they are being lied to [especially young people, who get lied to all the time]. Nothing healthy involves dishonesty. Even if the truth hurts, that pain could be the thing that helps turn a challenging situation into one in which they can start to succeed.
STEP 3: Communicate effectively. Look into someone’s eyes when you are talking to them and listen to what they have to say with some empathy. Understand where they are coming from. Being fully engaged with not just your ears, but your heart, and your body language can have long lasting benefits.
STEP 4: Trust the person you are talking to. Trust is built be first not going back on the commitments that you have made and secondly, continually communicating decisions that you make so that when tension arises, you have a clear and fair understanding of your decision making.