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Building Relationships, One Step at a Time

Having moved to a new city just before starting a new company, trying to take on the dual tasks of building an entirely new social network at the same time as I build a new clientele, I'm reminded of the complexity of the task of making new connections.

I've had various levels of success with this in different periods of my life, struggling early on with social ease before finding environments that were more my speed, and activities to help with the task of building relationships.

Part of the challenge that so many of us face is one of insecurity, and the need for validation in the face of potentially losing connections, which surely pushes others away further. And part of the issue can be failing to understand and respect one another's boundaries.

I tend to be a pretty open person, generally willing to talk about nearly anything with almost anyone, so it's more rare for others to violate my boundaries. But it takes extra effort for me to feel out those of other people, especially early on.

During my time at Braver Angels, I got insightful guidance on this issue from Dr. Bill Doherty, one of the organization's co-founders and a generous mentor. He pointed me toward social penetration theory, which describes the process by which relationships are formed, moving from more superficial layers of our personalities toward the much more intimate core.

We engage in this process through stages, and it can be important that we take social cues from others, sensing where they are in the process before reciprocating by possibly moving towards deeper layers. There are relatively few people in our lives with whom we get to the last stage of "stable exchange," which is only possible through the establishment of deep trust through continual back and forth interactions, including around some of our most closely held secrets.

There are those of us who tend to cast caution to the wind, and talk about religion and politics on a first date. But these taboos exist for a reason, and it's certainly more common to take a more measured approach, with people generally recognizing the risks of disclosing too much too soon, especially when the stakes are higher than just missing out on a second date—like jeopardizing a relationship that is crucial to our professional success.

One of the biggest pitfalls of stretching boundaries too soon is that the process can reverse, resulting in "social depenetration," or worse yet, dissolution of a relationship.

In recent years, many people have suffered broken relationships due to the political and cultural conflicts in which we find ourselves embroiled. And now, more and more organizations are experiencing this sort of challenge within their workforces and memberships.

Part of the reason this is happening is clearly just the presence of more conflicts. There are countless examples these days where the stakes feel so existential to so many, and naturally relationships will be strained when we suddenly find out that someone we work closely with has beliefs that we find unacceptable.

But the challenge also stems from the new realities of the workplace, where the process of social penetration can be short circuited by several factors that seem to have changed drastically in the past few years.

First of all, we're losing many of the shared spaces within which this process can most easily happen. That's happening in a number of ways, with the geographical sorting of our country by political leaning having started many years ago. Each year it gets less and less likely that we'll share a backyard, a school, or an office with someone who sees the world very differently from us.

And in the past four years it's become less likely we'll share an office with anyone, with the rise of remote work, which is particularly common in anglophone countries. As of the end of last month, the average office occupancy of the top 10 metro areas in the U.S. was still shy of half what it was pre-pandemic.

For many colleagues, offices are where they get to know one another as people, with watercooler chit chat helping to get folks past stage one of the process.

What happens when we have a work environment in which it's hard to have these basic exchanges? Companies that conduct the majority of their meetings virtually often sacrifice these more social interactions, thinking that they're not core to the tasks at hand. But for those joining a workforce with a brand new set of colleagues, it can be difficult to get to a level of basic trust with their colleagues without these exchanges.

And in the midst of this growing trust gap, there are also shifts in the workplace based on generational changes and technology that make it more likely that conflict will emerge that can lead to relationship rupture. Younger people in the workplace are more likely to want to "bring their whole selves to work," as they say. They're more apt to demand that their values are reflected in their work, and they're not afraid to be vocal about it.

At the same time, coworkers are often connected through social media, where our colleagues' presences can vary significantly from the agreeable visages arrayed across our Zoom window. With the toxic incentives that these platforms present to us, coworkers had already begun to struggle with alienation from one another long before the pandemic took away our cubicle neighbors.

Organizations must now be much more thoughtful about how they navigate the task of socializing their employees with one another, setting up positive, low-stakes interactions, like personal meeting check-ins and other social opportunities. If those engaged in a mission together find their process of forming relationships together undermined, the trust necessary to that shared mission evaporates, and the whole enterprise suffers.

Those organizations that take the time to help their people lay the foundations for the gradual building of meaningful and deep relationships will find themselves much better positioned to weather the storm of polarization that grows fiercer with each passing year.


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