Why happy families require 12 great relationships (or maybe 11)



Lisa Earle McLeod

I love my family. We were on a group tour recently. One of our fellow tour members, a woman we didn’t know prior to the trip, who had shared a bus, hikes and meals with us for a few days, said, “I can tell you all really enjoy being around each other.”

It was one of the nicest compliments I’d ever gotten.

Our family isn’t perfect, but our observer was right, we do enjoy being around each other.

I realized in that moment, creating a happy family is about multiple relationships. Each person has an individual relationship with every other member.

In a family of four, there are 12 relationships. Each person has a personal relationship with the other three. That’s six total relationships. Then there are two sides to each relationship, so that means 12 dynamics in play.

The same exponential relationship model applies at work. Even if everyone has a good relationship with the leader, if one team member dislikes another, it has a chilling effect on the entire group.

Case in point, my younger brother and I ruined many a family trip (and dinners, and TV nights and zoo, museum, Dairy Queen trips, and just about every other thing my mother tried to plan) with our constant fighting.

In any group, if one relationship, or even one side of one relationship is out of whack, it makes every single other relationship worse.

My colleague Seth Kahan, (www.visionaryleadership.com) says the exponential relationship dynamic is actually a mathematical formula: 2 n– (n + 1) where n is the number of people in the group. This formula factors in the sub groups, trios, quads, etc., that occur in any group of more than two. For a family of four, the exponential number is 11, 24 - (4+1) = 16 - 5 = 11 total relationships. Which doesn’t include the two sides of each relationship. But you get the point.

No matter which formula you use, the exponential relationship concept reinforces what you already know, families and groups, are complicated.

Imagine how much different our family trip would have been if one of our kids had been angry with one of the parents. Actually you probably don’t have to imagine it, you’ve likely made that trip yourself, as have we.

Imagine, or remember, what a work team is like when two key players have an unspoken disagreement. You can feel the tension in every meeting.

So, what does a leader or parent do with this information? You have to create conditions that enable your team to have successful, independent relationships with each other. Yes, I know it’s more work, but you will ultimately benefit. Here are three tips to get started:

  1. Set aside time to spend with each member alone.
  2. Provide team members with space and time to get to know each other individually, outside the larger group.
  3. Set an expectation that people will put time and effort into their relationships.

The last one is critical. Many workplaces, and many families, focus exclusively on output, creating the best product, doing the project faster or getting the best grades. But one of the secrets to creating great output is through mutually supportive, enjoyable relationships. The team that dislikes each other is rarely innovative or successful, much less fun.

Group relationships are complex. But they’re worth it.

When you look around the table and realize, we all really like each other, you’re destined for great things.

- Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant and author of several books. Her website is http://www.mcleodandmore.com.


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