How to manage dysfunctional relationships at work

While many leaders believe relationships are important, few can tell you much about the patterns of interaction that define how their most important relationships work or fail to work, according to Diana McLain Smith in her book The Elephant in the Room: How Relationships Make or Break the Success of Leaders and Organizations. Relationships between people in organisations have predictable patterns which can be analysed and altered.

The book goes on to analyse why some relationships grow stronger over the course of time and why some grow weaker. By taking a relational perspective and reflecting and reframing, leaders are able to overcome differences and strengthen working relationships. Through observing and analysing patterns of interactions it is possible to transform the underlying structure of a relationship. The author provides tools and techniques for doing this.

Much of the book is taken up in describing particular relationships in detail. Chapters 1 and 2 chronicle and interpret the breakdown in the relationship between Steve Jobs and John Sculley leading to Steve being fired from Apple. I must admit that I found these chapters somewhat uncomfortable reading, partly because I do not enjoy reliving the minutiae of a dispute, and partly because it seems presumptive to pronounce judgment on supposed personal interactions based purely on information gleaned from secondary sources.

Nonetheless, the book provides useful advice about ways of managing interpersonal relationships that are not going well. Most organisational leaders develop ways of coping with dysfunctional inter-personal relationships, but this book suggests techniques which are likely to provide a higher level of success. I recommend the book as a challenging but worthwhile read.

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