The Importance of People

Agencies, organizations and businesses are not individuals. They are teams composed of many different people working together. Each of these individuals brings something special and unique to the group. The success or failure of an organization or process depends on the success or failure of the team, which in turn depends on the relationship between individuals.

Strangers, Neighbors and Family

Almost all relationships fall into one of three broad categories: strangers, neighbors and family. Business transactions fall under the stranger category. There is an emotional distance between strangers and their relationship is one-for-one, or transactional. Neighbors share and share alike by trading and collaborating. There may be an asymmetrical or unbalanced flow of resources and goodwill with the expectation that this goodwill will be returned in the future. Rather than transactional, this follows a quid pro quo paradigm under which a favor or advantage is extended in the expectation that something will be returned in the future. Families engage in complete communal sharing of resources and experiences. The very best organizations strive for relationships that fall under the category of neighbors. They engage meaningfully with their community and constituents either through outreach or investment. In turn, community members patronize and support the organizations within their community.

Building a community or neighborhood requires open and honest communication, goals shared between the organization and outside members, authenticity, and mutual promises or covenants. The commitment between the organization and those neighbors outside it makes the relationship successful and sustainable.

One of our experts explains different kinds of relationships and their importance in working together.


People and Social Structures – Art Markman – The University of Texas at Austin

A lot of your success in business isn’t actually about your technical expertise. It’s about your ability to understand the relationships that you have with the people around you. You need to understand the kinds of relationships you engage in. It turns out that you can actually break down the relationships you have into three types: strangers, neighbors and family.

Most of the people in your world are strangers. They’re people you don’t know very well. They’re people that you don’t do much work with. As a result, you don’t have a lot of trust with them, which means you have to settle up what you do with them in the moment. For example, if you’re driving down the street and you blow a tire, and some random person stops and helps you change that tire, it’s not inappropriate to pull a $20 bill out of your pocket to give them some thanks. Now they might not take it but it’s not embarrassing to do that because you’re trying to settle up in the moment. Or if you go to the grocery store, you can’t borrow eggs from the grocery store, you actually have to buy those eggs.

Now at the extreme other end of the spectrum is family. With family, you have a lot of relationship. You do a lot of work together. You celebrate holidays and birthdays and things like that. As a result, you trust your family, so you don’t even pay any attention to the transactions you engage with, which is why parents do thing after thing after thing for their kids without really expecting much in return except maybe hoping that the kids will take care of them when they get older.

Now in the middle are neighbors. Neighbors are people that you interact with, you spend time with them. You might engage in some rituals like holidays with them. As a result, you build a little bit of trust, but you’re still paying attention to who’s doing what. But you don’t settle up in the moment. You settle up in the long term. Let’s imagine now that you walk out of your house in the morning and you have a flat tire. Your neighbor comes out, helps you change the tire. You don’t whip out a $20 bill for your neighbor but you might bring over a banana bread the next day or drive the kids to school, or something like that, where what you’re doing is a kind of quid pro quo. Over time, you’re settling things up. In that neighborhood, any neighbor who never does anything ultimately gets ostracized.

Now if you think about it, not only are your neighbors the people that you live around, they’re also the people that you work with. The most effective workplaces and the most effective work environments are ones where the people treat each other like neighbors, which means you want to get to know a little bit about the people you work with. You want to find a way to be trustworthy to them, which means following through on the things that you say you’re going to do. If you say you’re going to send an email, send that email. If you set up a meeting with somebody, you want to make sure you go to that meeting. When you do that, then all of your work gets easier, because now everyone is giving each other the benefit of the doubt when working together rather than trying to make sure that they maximize what they get in the moment.

Because when trust erodes, you fall back on contractual obligations where all you do is the letter of the contract that you have in front of you, rather than trying to work in the mutual best interests of the people that you are engaged with. That’s really the way you can tell how your relationship is going. When people are willing to do the things that they need to do for each other, then you have a good neighborly relationship. When people are relying on a contractual obligation, that’s the point where you know you’ve become more strangers with them. That’s the point at which you have to reengage with them in order to create that kind of neighborly relationship.

Ultimately, pay attention to the relationships that you have with the people that you work with and try to create relationships that have that trust, that are neighborly relationships, that will allow you to work together effectively in the long term.

Images: “Crowd of people” by multiz12 via Shutterstock