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David Willcock

Liberating Potential Ltd.

Director and Leadership Coach

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A new ‘relationship agenda’ for HR?


The Tomorrow Company with other partners including the CIPD recently published a research report called ‘Tomorrow’s Relationships – unlocking value.'

This echoes some of the key themes in my book published by Gower in 2013; namely, that risk in relationships is not given the attention it deserves alongside other aspects of business; the need for an explicit board level relationship agenda; and the need for a systemic and systematic approach to reviewing and developing working relationships. The report also suggests the need for a board-level Chief Relationship Officer – a challenge to HR Directors who should perhaps be taking on this role?

We need to manage relationships proactively

For the HR function the importance of working relationships for business success is not new, particularly for the organisation development departments. A lot of work goes into developing the emotional intelligence of leaders and teams and there are many ways in use today to increase collaboration in organisations. I came across a number of examples in my research where key HR processes were used to reduce the down side of silo working and encourage networking and collaboration, including: induction that helps people understand and connect with different parts of the business; training and development, particularly on pan-organisation programmes; performance management that reinforces key values and capabilities; reward and recognition that links with good performance and talent management; and organisation structure design that provides clear and contingent roles and responsibilities.

Despite this they don’t always succeed, become sustainable or inform the learning of others. There are regular examples in news reports of breakdowns that occur within and between organisations. In one high profile example, Chris Patton, former Chairman of the BBC Trust, blamed silo working at the BBC as one of the reasons for the editorial crises that damaged the organisation’s reputation – a view subsequently confirmed in The Pollard Report [PDF].

Solving problems with collaboration

So what are the collaboration challenges that seem so hard to resolve? Some of my findings were:

  1. Our natural tendency towards silo working. People get into comfort zones of contact and prefer to retain control over their work. The complexity of organisations can reinforce this and in a difficult and ambiguous business environment there is always potential for misunderstanding and unproductive conflict. People generally find the management of difference difficult and defensive behaviours lead to rigidity and sometimes breakdown in relationships. Where this involves senior leaders whole departments can follow and develop negative and polarised perceptions of each other.
  2. Problems of identity and purpose. In a complex organisation system experiencing constant change achieving a shared purpose and identity can be difficult. Take for example the combined private/public company or those making the transition to private. At the level of personal and team identity it can create a lot of confusion. This lack of clarity appears in some cases to lead to increased silo working as different identities and values clash. Without identification at team and organisation levels, identity defaults to the lowest level – the sub-group, clique or individual. No surprise that leadership development has been so high up the agenda.
  3. Patterns of behaviour that repeat in organisations. In complex and interconnected systems silo working can itself be an invisible influence on the organisation. Patterns repeat in organisations and teams influenced by the processes and emotional climate. A lack of awareness of the wider context and barriers to collaboration is another reason why silo working prevails.

What this points towards is the need to constantly put effort and energy into developing relationships that work. Without this focus relationships can drift and serious business consequences emerge – a lack of shared learning and innovation, delays in getting work done, unproductive conflict, stress and significant reputational and financial costs due to programme failures.

Understanding the structure of organisations

In complex interconnected organisations leaders need to have broad systems awareness and thinking, understand and recognise the importance of interdependencies and be proactive in developing relationships that work.

Research by Bill Torbert and Associates shows that only a small percentage of managers demonstrate this more holistic and integrative frame of reference, with the majority occupying what they term the ‘expert’ and ‘achiever’ frames of reference.

So is the good work of HR departments to develop relationships done within the right frame of reference and in the best way?

Highlighting functional experts

HR is not immune from silo working and functional experts can focus on excellence in their chosen discipline sometimes to the exclusion of the bigger picture. Professional identity and language can be a barrier to broader collaboration. Business partnering can sometimes reinforce organisation silos. Problems at board level can be caused by directors acting as functional heads rather than corporate leaders.

If HR is to play a lead role in the new relationship agenda then new perspectives and capabilities may be required. A board level agenda needs to be facilitated and then translated into a people strategy that integrates business and organisation development and takes a system-wide rather than an institutional and functional view.

There needs to be a process for engaging people in meaningful dialogue around working relationships, particularly for critical initiatives where risk is highest and collaboration essential.

Not least, HR need to be role models – proactive in promoting collaboration across HR and with others inside and outside of the organisation. HR is uniquely placed to rise to this challenge and not only unlock more value but improve the quality of working life.

David Willcock is a leadership coach with Liberating Potential.

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Author Profile Picture
David Willcock

Director and Leadership Coach

Read more from David Willcock