Here, I will describe how you can develop meta-relationships.
Meta-relationships can be developed by doing the following things:
- Being inclusive
- Balancing formality with informality
- Focusing on people and relationships
- Focusing on process
- Developing supportive personal habits of thinking and behaviour
- Developing a supportive culture
Balancing formality with informality
It is important that collaboration's strike the right balance between formality and informality. Formal agreements and processes help a collaboration not only operate efficiently and effectively but also lay the foundations upon which partners can begin to build trusting and mutually supportive relationships. Informal interaction encourages partners to do this building: it offers a safe and sheltered space within which partners can sound each other out on a personal level, form "off-the-record" relationships with each other and eventually develop personal networks and back channels that can oil the wheels of formality. This lubrication is essential; without it, the complexity of the issues and problems being addressed (plus the subtle intricacies of interpersonal and inter-organisational dynamics) will make it inevitable that the formal agreements and processes of a collaboration will at some point shudder and stall under the stress and strain of the diverse and competing demands placed upon them.
Also, seeking a balance between formality and informality redresses the widespread imbalance in favour of formality built into the culture and fabric of many collaborations. Understandably, and with good reason, partners' parent organisations and other sponsors of collaborative working demand the tangible reassurance of formal systems and the accountability and measurability they enable. All too often, however, these formal systems fill almost all of the collaborative space. They preoccupy the minds and dictate the actions of partners and occupy the physical, virtual and perceptual spaces where informal interaction could have taken place: meetings are always formal, IT is always used for official purposes and people see people managed by systems rather than systems managed by people.
Here are some ways to achieve a balance between formality and informality (and redress the common imbalance in favour of formality):
Ensure there is space and opportunity for social interaction
Build space for informal social interaction into a collaboration's systems, structures and processes. Make sure the space is defined, comfortable, familiar and safe. For example, make time and space for informal interaction before and after formal meetings. Make sure this informal interaction takes place in a relaxed space away from the meeting room and prepare for it carefully. How will you encourage people to feel relaxed? How will you encourage people to interact? How will you encourage people to interact with those outside of their usual social, professional and organisational spheres? How will you encourage people to move around and mingle? Remember that encouraging opportunities for repeated unplanned interactions is the key to successful informal social interaction.
Call regular informal intermissions or "time-outs" during the progress of a collaboration's work. Make sure these happen at different times and places from formal meetings and conferences, etc. Again, prepare for them carefully and ask yourself the above questions. Give these "time-outs" a clear purpose but ensure it is appropriate to an informal, relaxed setting and you can achieve it with a light touch.
For example, you might want to call for additional partners to help with the work of your collaboration. You could deliver a short presentation explaining why additional partners are needed and the skills, expertise, experience and resources they would need to contribute. At the end of the presentation you could provide your email address or mobile telephone number and ask people, as they mingle and chat, to email or text you their suggestions for new partners.
The above example demonstrates a simple way in which information and communication technology can be used to achieve valuable outcomes as part of informal interactions.
Identify additional ways in which ICT can be used informally, unobtrusively and intuitively. Make sure these approaches are simple and their purposes clearly focused and defined. Ensuring these things is essential because too much complexity and a lack of focus and definition re. their use will cause ambiguity and confusion and hinder an atmosphere of relaxed informality.
Find ways to blend social media into ongoing informal interactions, but be careful how you blend it in. Facebook closed groups, group messenger chats (together with some light-touch and mutually agreed good practice guidelines which ensure safety and appropriate privacy) will ensure that social media can quietly oil the wheels of informal conversation and relationship building rather than cause unwanted misunderstandings and personal frictions.
Lastly, do not bind partners to legal agreements too early in the life of a collaboration. Instead, begin by seeking informal understandings that can naturally evolve into Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) that can then lead to legal agreements. This will not always be easy to achieve, given the high profile nature of many collaborations and stakeholders' and sponsors' understandable demands for clear accountability and measurable outcomes. However, achieving this informal breathing space at the beginning of a collaboration's life will pay significant future dividends: when the going gets tough and the collaboration experiences difficult times and unexpected problems, partners will be able to overcome their challenges by calling upon the personal understandings and associated willingness to offer mutual support that were developed previously.
Identify and exploit the relationship tipping point
During informal interactions, relationship tipping points occur. If these tipping points are identified, they can be reinforced and then built upon to encourage trusting and readily reciprocal relationships. Here is a colourful example of a relationship tipping point (plus my detailed analysis of how it was identified and exploited).
As my analysis makes clear, not all manifestations of relationship tipping points will be as colourful and dramatic as the one described: their exact nature will depend on the type and mix of partners involved, the context, and expectations about behaviour arising from the prevailing background culture.
For example, relationship tipping points that appear within many business and professional contexts are likely to be less energetic and "in your face" than the youth orchestra example. They will, however, be visible to those who look for them. They will appear (perhaps somewhat subtly) during the previously mentioned informal gatherings placed before and after formal meetings, within the previously mentioned informal timeouts, and within informal get-togethers planted beside conferences and training events, etc. They may even appear during informal social media group interactions (although these will be quite difficult to identify due to lack of physical proximity and reduced opportunity to notice behavioural cues).
Whatever the context, doing the five things described within the above mentioned analysis will help you identify relationship tipping points and then exploit them to your collaboration's advantage.
Welcome informal offers to share
As well as creating formal agreements to share resources and expertise, etc., look out for and welcome informal offers to share. Often, these will be relatively small offers: a pair of helping hands, a useful piece of equipment, a room, a helpful snippet of knowledge, a little timely expertise or advice, a word in someone's ear... Their smallness and apparent insignificance, however, can be useful in five specific ways:
- They can provide quick and timely assistance, filling in and repairing the cracks that often form within a collaboration's formal structures and ways of working.
- They can be of unexpected and/or critical value to those who receive them; what is lowly valued and easily offered by one partner may be highly valued and sought-after by another.
- They can help all partners, regardless of their level of power and access to resources, feel valued and able to contribute.
- They can signal that trust is beginning to develop between partners: people only make personal and informal offers to help when they trust, or are at least are beginning to trust, those to whom they are making the offers.
- They offer small, informal and non-threatening opportunities to connect with people and build upon the above mentioned trust.
Informal "of the record" relationships will always exist within and beside formal collaborative relationships and will often be hidden from formal sight, as this example shows. These hidden relationships can be between partners within the collaboration, existing as informal shadows to formally agreed relationships (as was the case in the given example), or they can be between partners within the collaboration and people outside the collaboration: additional relationships officially unknown to the collaboration that, never-the-less, walk quietly beside it.
As either of these types of hidden informal relationships have the potential to significantly affect the decisions and actions of a collaboration, it is important to find and manage them (if necessary, assimilating them into a collaboration's acknowledged inter and extra-relational fabric). Doing this will achieve the following two things:
- It will lessen the probability of understandings and decisions originating from informal hidden relationships adversely affecting the progress of a collaboration (as was the case in the above mentioned example).
- It will increase a collaboration's resilience: it will enable a collaboration to identify and adapt quickly to changing contexts and partners' differing interests by blending the idealism and reassuring structure of formality with the realism and pragmatic flexibility of informality.
- Identify pre-existing relationships. Hidden informal relationships within a collaboration are often the continuation of pre-existing relationships between partners (as was the case in the example given above). A very natural and acceptable way of discovering pre-existing relationships is to meet with partners on their home turf. Photos, past project reports, staff stories and chat; your partners' meetings with long-term associates; chance meetings in corridors and canteens: all these things and more will point you toward pre-existing relationships that could continue within a collaboration, colouring partners' perceptions and attitudes and affecting their behaviour and decision making.
- Bring informality in from the cold. Create opportunities for hidden informal relationships to become visible and, if it is advantageous, assimilated within a collaboration. Holding regular and informal "scouting meetings", which invite a wide range of potential partners and others with an interest in a collaboration's work to attend and mix with each other, can often surface pre-existing relationships that can then be managed or assimilated as the need arises.
Representatives of national and local governments and agencies, members of professions, masters of trades: all of these and many others often associate growing informality with diminishing respect and loss of credibility. The degree to which they do this depends on their traditions, cultures, perceptions of themselves, and their expectations about how they should be treated (and how much these things are perceived to be at risk from increased informality).
Where the above degree of association is marked, it will strongly affect the interactions between people: in an attempt to safeguard respect and credibility, the majority of interactions will be consistently and reassuringly formal.
The language you use when speaking to others (and the language others are expected to use when speaking to you); the way you approach and address others (and the way others are expected to address you); the way you manage meetings and discussions (and the way others are expected to manage meetings and discussions); whom you have access to and when and how you have access to them (and who has access to you and when and how they have access to you): where growing informality is associated with diminishing respect and loss of credibility, all these things (and more) will construct a bulwark of formality.
Additionally, where there is a significant power difference between people, the association of informality with diminishing respect and loss of credibility can eventually develop into a "Status Trap". To find out more about this trap click here.
However, as the beginning of this post makes clear, the common association made between growing informality and diminishing respect is often inaccurate. In fact, through enabling increased understanding between partners and encouraging them to collaborate not only professionally but also personally, the well-balanced and appropriately managed growth of informality is likely to increase mutual respect and enhance each partner's credibility.
Do not, therefore, allow habitual insecurities about loss of respect and diminished power to rule your thinking and actions.
To read the next post in the series click here.