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Machines work by tasks and timelines. Human beings are a bit more complex.

Years ago I’d been called in to work with a global company to help their leaders execute their work more efficiently. I’d worked in this realm before and thought it would be a good opportunity to expand my work. But the further I got in to the project, the more I was being pressed for timelines and deliverables I wasn’t prepared to give. I was still interviewing and learning. I realized I didn’t know enough yet and felt overwhelmed.

During these moments, I’ve learned not knowing what to do is a good place to be in because it forces us to ask for help. Even a seasoned consultant of 50 years like Edgar Schein remarked in his recent book, Humble Consulting, that as he approached an important meeting he realized, “I don’t know what to do!”

The Complexity of Human Behavior

As I thought on what to do about the company I was working with, I remembered a mentor from my past named Sy. Calling him on the phone and telling him my situation he calmed me down saying, “David, the challenge you face is that only machines work according to ‘objectives and timelines.’ Human behavior is more complex than that. Starting with those things is good, but it isn’t that easy… You’ve got to go through the black box of the human mind.”

He further explained that I’d not been hired to teach about management, but to bring knowledge of human relationships. “How you manage interpersonal relationships is the process by which you achieve your timelines,” he finished.

It’s hard to sum up such a rich conversation—but it was pivotal for me. It taught me that a great plan doesn’t equate a strategy. Rather, relationships are the real strategy. We live in a world where tasks and timelines rule the air, but what about the people who are supposed to carry out the tasks according to the timeline?

I’ve said many times that my belief now is this: relational work is the real strategy. If we can’t get that right, our tactical work will always fall flat. Relationships are built on trust and trust is a complex human factor.

Trust: A Human Factor

In their work, Trust in Management & Performance (2005), Roger C. Mayer & Mark B. Gavin found that trustworthiness has three elements: ability, benevolence, and integrity. In other words, people will not work well together well unless they believe their colleagues can do the work, want to do the work, and will follow through with their commitments. You can’t get a team that has these three elements without good relationships. But get healthy relationships in place and each person’s abilities will be electrified for productivity. Ability alone isn’t enough—it’s got to be cloaked in a human with a good heart and integrity to keep the team glued together.

In such a technical world, I’ve found peace knowing that the real strategy is relational—get that right and the tactical stuff will get pulled off every time. Sy helped me learn this wisdom and its still paying dividends. Thank you Sy.

If you don’t know where to start with healthy relationships, remember, it starts with trust. You can’t get trust without actually knowing each other. So go out to lunch this week and ask your colleagues some personal stuff. Find out where they were born, how many siblings they have and ask about a challenge they faced when they were younger that shaped them into the person they are today. Building trust starts with building a relationship. Give it a try. Need more help? Let me know.

When did you learn that relationships are the real strategy? I’d love to hear your stories.

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