Relationships are superseding hierarchical systems as the dominant mode of
managing, say Sally Atkinson and David Butcher in their latest research. For you and your organisation to work
efficiently it can be crucial to understand the type of alliances senior people
Strange as it may seem, the understanding of how interpersonal relationships
shape businesses is only now beginning to happen. As business performance has
become increasingly reliant on complex networks of resource providers and
stakeholders, the recognition has grown that good relationships between
specific individuals is essential to hold everything together. Growing amounts
of scholarly research demonstrate this direct link between good relationships
and strong business performance, and of course, the reverse – that poor
relationships directly impede performance. As one hotel manager in a research
study we have been conducting put it: "Without good relationships, the
show stops. It’s as simple as that."
If interpersonal relationships are critical to business performance, those
at senior levels are especially so. The productivity or otherwise of
relationships between senior managers has an inevitable influence on the whole
organisation. Good and bad relationships at this level are reflected and
amplified further down. So how senior people think about and manage their
relationships matters greatly because the outcomes have far-reaching
Obvious? Well it might surprise some to know that despite this self-evident
logic, many senior people give only cursory thought to their relationships. In
the course of our research we interviewed senior managers, many of them CEOs,
managing directors or board level members, from a variety of sectors. Wherever
we went the response was very similar. "I just don’t think that much about
my relationships", was a common reply.
More striking still was our discovery that in some organisational
environments, even to admit relationships play a part in senior management work
is frowned upon. For example, we had to interview the MD of an investment bank
unofficially because he felt sure it would not be acceptable to talk to us about
relationships as a representative of the bank. "I’d have to refuse,"
he said, "because the bank wouldn’t want people to think that that’s the
way things really work. It doesn’t look professional’."
How can it be that relationships are so obviously important yet receive so
little management attention? There are two explanations. One lies in the
conceptualisation of management and organisations over the past hundred years.
While organisations are self-evidently collections of people, each with their
own talents, agendas, motivations and emotions, the rational principles upon
which organisations are built tend to consign relationships between these
unique individuals to the ‘non-organisational’ box.
People relate through roles which are designed to create unity of effort in
pursuit of corporate goals. In conceptual terms there is no need for
relationships to make things run more smoothly or provide better access to
personal contributions. No need because the rational organisation can in principle
be designed to ensure that people are fully motivated to work towards corporate
objectives, which are by definition common objectives. Relationships complicate
the picture because they admit of personal agendas and the possibility of a
collusion between individuals that does not accord with the common objectives.
The second explanation concerns the nature of relationships themselves.
Managing relationships is a task common to any social sphere. Work, family,
leisure – no matter what manner of joint human endeavour, it involves some kind
of relationship. Building relationships is nothing out of the ordinary; it is a
taken-for-granted part of everyday life. If we had to think carefully about
every action in every relationship we would rapidly be overwhelmed by a sense
of unmanageable complexity. As a result, most of us only think about defining
moments in key relationships rather than constantly appraising the
relationships themselves. And with so many relationships to manage, inside and
outside work, it is little wonder that most relationships escape our direct
These two explanations are not contradictory. In combination they have
served to obscure the nature and significance of interpersonal relationships in
a managerial context – how they work, how much they contribute, what helps and
hinders them. Our research goal was therefore to understand managerial
relationships better, focusing on those at the top because of their
significance, and to provide some practical advice for executives keen to
leverage their relationships for themselves and their businesses.
In looking for a useful starting point we found that there were few models
to help understand relationships in any convincing way. Only social
psychologists have made any notable progress. In their work we encountered the
idea that most relationships are based on some sort of exchange, but there are
differences in how overtly transactional this process is. This led us to ask
whether all management relationships are based on some form of exchange, and
the realisation that the answer is not obvious. Some managerial relationships
are more than just about exchange. Some are purely transactional, where the
exchange itself is the raison d’àtre for the relationship. Others have a more
personal focus, where exchanges are not entirely focused on immediate personal
gain, but on some mutual benefit vested in the relationship. The distinction
led us to propose a categorisation of managerial relationships which we have
tested not only on our senior management interviewees, but also on the many
executives with whom we have worked over the past two years. In our
classification there are two broad categories of relationships, each of which
contains several different types.
The first broad category is utility relationships. Utility relationships are
purely focused on the task. These are the relationships that managers must have
in order to perform their roles, and they approach those relationships from an
instrumental perspective. In other words, managers in utility relationships use
each other to get work done, and most of their interactions are functional.
Such relationships can be built and cast-off according to need and the
project in hand. They are a means to an end. The end, of course, is the
particular contribution, information or knowledge that one person can provide
for another. Utility relationships are, therefore, by definition, to be used.
The value is in the access the relationship provides to the other person,
rather than in the relationship itself. There is neither a requirement nor a
personal inclination to develop the relationship further.
The second broad category is personal relationships. Personal relationships
are also task-focused, but the quality of the relationship and experience of
working together is entirely different. Unlike in utility relationships where
the need to have the relationship is as a means to an end, in personal
relationships the relationship itself also has value.
Loyalty, trust, mutual liking, enjoyment and satisfaction from working
together, closeness, openness, constructive challenge, even friendship – all of
these are characteristics of a personal relationship. Of course to create such
a relationship it is unlikely that interactions will be purely functionally
focused. There is also a social dimension, but sociability is not the be-all
and end-all of the relationship.
How, then, does that distinction help in understanding senior management
relationships? Senior managers need a large number of relationships, without
which most of their activity will be ineffective. Of these, most will be
utility relationships. This is because senior relationships are characterised
by limited time, a strong focus on getting the job done, and strong political
motives. All of this adds up to a relationship environment not conducive to
trust or closeness. Add to this the fact that, like everyone else, senior
managers cannot usually choose, and therefore do not necessarily like the
people that they need to interact with, and utility relationships become more
The most effective operators at senior management level are those that
recognise the value and limitations of both types of relationships. Utility
relationships meet the requirements of getting a particular job done and are
not compromised by the indulgence that may characterise less effective personal
Furthermore, the downside risks are much less in a utility relationship.
Because of the lack of personal expectations, there are few risks involved if
one or other person is dissatisfied with the relationship, or wishes to sever
it. On the other hand, effective senior managers have a small number of
personal relationships – on average two – which they value greatly.
Usually experienced as more fulfilling for the parties involved, there are
also many business assets that accrue from personal relationships. These range
from talking openly with colleagues about organisational issues to developing
political alliances that can be used to exert stronger collective influence.
Trust, honesty and commitment in personal relationships are capitalised upon to
create significant business-focused outcomes.
However, poorly managed, personal relationships degenerate into hotbeds of
discontent, mistrust and anger, with disastrous personal and business
A very basic point emerges from this. The tendency to avoid thinking about
relationships that we so often encountered is highly counterproductive. It is
easy to misuse them and under-use them. This makes little sense in any
circumstances. But with the recognition that networks are superseding
hierarchical decision-making as the dominant mode of managing, it makes
The utility-personal distinction draws attention to the need to give
relationships the consideration they deserve. à
As an example, consider Heather, HR director of a leisure business,
describing her relationship with Ian, the legal director: "He’s a very private
individual and he’s pretty task focused. It’s his nature.
"He’s got a lawyer’s brain – it’s very logical. Almost every
conversation we have is around a legal issue. It might widen out into a general
philosophical discussion about the way the courts are going or the political
climate is going but it would still have relevance to that issue. I’m very
happy with the relationship as it stands.
It’s very low maintenance and business-like. I wouldn’t want it to be any
more personal. He wouldn’t welcome it and I don’t need the hassle!"
Alan, senior manufacturing manager in a multinational photographic products
organisation, describes his personal relationship with Ken, a fellow senior
manager: "Our relationship is so easy. It needs very little attention or
maintenance. I think we’ve got that unwritten agreement. It’s there – it
doesn’t need to be constantly reinforced. It doesn’t take a lot of talking,
stroking, or building up. And there are high levels of trust there. He’s my confidant.
If I’ve got some issues I know, because of that personal relationship, I can go
and discuss those issues with him that he knows is just between him and me.
That’s hugely valuable to me because when you’re in a senior role you can’t
always do that. But the relationship is also really important to me in terms of
his function. I get what I want more easily because of that personal
relationship. I can’t put that into words.
"He understands, I think, exactly where I’m coming from,
the motives behind some of the decisions. He understands a bit more than some
of the others."
David Butcher is director, general
management programmes at Cranfield University School of Management where Sally
Atkinson is a lecturer in management development. This article is based on
their work for the Cranfield Senior Management Relationships Research project