Playing Nice Part I: Stages of Relationships

Written By Mindy McCutcheon
Posted on

The thing about relationship dynamics is, it doesn’t apply to just intimate ones with your partner or friends. If you’ve ever spent any time in therapy, hopefully you’ve gained a sense of self awareness that allows you to see how patterns can develop with all the people you interact with on a regular basis- friends, relatives, co-workers, even people you interact with regularly like at the grocery store. Over my next three posts, I explore the dynamics and phases of relationships. Relationships in the digital workplace and beyond. And keep in mind, this is merely based on my opinion and experiences. I am by no means Ms. Perfect when it comes to my own interactions, but I do believe, you can’t improve anything until you take a minute to sit back and own.your.shit.

I set off on this post to discuss the ever-changing dynamics within work relationships and teams. Turns out, it was a bit of a wormhole and I couldn’t stop writing, so I opted for a three-parter. There are so many resources out there that research this, but the catalyst for me drew from my experiences. Teams, relationships, and work dynamics are incredibly intertwined and complex. The deeper I poured, the more research I found and I drew inspiration from the works of Patrick Lencioni, author of ‘The Advantage’ and well known Relationship Repair expert, Bruce Muzick. Other personal favorite books that closely tie into this are ‘The 5 Love Languages’ and ‘The Four Agreements’.

So here we go…

1. The Romance Stage

Like all new relationships, we all start off in the honeymoon phase. Neither party can do wrong. Everyone is happy and in love. That’s how the first couple months at Zaengle have felt. And like all new relationships, I hope this feeling never ends. Of course, like with any relationship, you endure your ebbs and flows. You’ll inevitably bump heads or face strong opinions at some point.

We’ve all been here. Sailing into your new gig like you are wearing a pair Cloud 9’s. IT’S AMAZING! Holy crap! How could you have been missing out on this feeling for SO long?!

When we fall in love (and by love, I mean score a sweet new position at a place you’re really amped about… or heck, maybe you actually fall in love love), we tend not to see our co-worker’s flaws or our company’s weaknesses. Afterall, if we knew all these nuances upfront, we’d probably be a little more hesitant (or at least more grounded in reality).

But who cares! We’re in love! Every day is amazing! You can’t imagine life any other way!

We’re all adults here. We know this doesn’t last forever. But for now, it’s really helping to work through the PTSD of past experiences, so whatever. It’s ahhmaazing and we’ll bask in it’s glow as long as we can!  

2. The Power Struggle Stage

After our sweet little high wears off (Muzik says it’s anywhere from two months to two years), we move onto the Power Struggle Stage. With all the major news headlines as of late, it seems as though there are a few folks out there who really struggle with overcoming this one. I don’t give a poo what industry you’re in, power struggles are REAL and people need to learn to compromise and communicate, not cope by feeding their “perceived” power.

While the goal of this stage is to “establish your autonomy within your relationship, without destroying the connection between you”, it can become a game changing moment at your new gig. Maybe you aren’t the assertive type, but you have so much beneficial input to share. You struggle to find your voice… or backbone. Or may you are the assertive type, but get called “bossy” or “bitchy” when you express your opinion (THAT path, I’ll save for another day. An example of this might be your team hiring an “expert” to handle a growing demand within your not-so-new startup (say marketing or social manager). The person who had previously handled it, while knowingly not great at handling it, puts up a fight with every step of the way, not allowing this team member to productively do their job.

But how does a team get through this phase when it feels like there’s no way out? First, you have to stop to appreciate your differences. Appreciate why each of you are there. You were hired for a reason and you each have different traits valuable to the team. Once you can identify these differences, you can share the power. Divide and conquer! It’s time to stop competing with each other and empower the other in their strength. If your company culture doesn’t embrace this or if this isn’t mutually enforced, then that’s an entirely different issue. No relationship can prosper if you’re the only willing to play fairly.

3. The Stability Stage

The thrill of the chase has returned! You have a newfound appreciation for work, your team, and projects. You’ve found some semblance of balance, completing the ‘Power Struggle’ stage prior. You’ve probably worked through some kinks and hopefully it wasn’t too draining. In turn, you settle into your ‘Stability Stage’. You may feel a deeper level of unity within your team, like “Man, I don’t know what we’d do if we hadn’t hired, Bob”. It’s cool. Everyone needs to feel loved and valued. It’s important that this goes both ways! Thank a co-worker for the extra hustle. Thank your boss when you see them leading by example.

Stable doesn’t mean boring. In fact, it can be an exciting time to take on new challenges or learn something new. You’re engrained in your system and can communicate what you want or need. Everyone on the team has their place and shares mutual respect.For the time being, being stable feels nice. It’s not sucking the energy from you or keeping you up at night. Stability is comfortable. It’s invigorating. It’s balanced.

4. The Commitment Stage

In the commitment stage, you are in it for the long haul. You’ve made it through some tough times- a few head butts or drunken holiday parties- and settled into a comfortable place. You know how your team members operate and react. You appreciate the skills they bring to the table.

The biggest pitfall of the commitment stage is getting too comfortable. You.Can’t.Stop.Trying. Sure, the warm fuzzies don’t happen as often and you don’t get butterflies every time you sign onto Slack. The trap in this stage is thinking that all your work is done- you’ve got it made in the shade. It’s like when a guy gets comfortable enough in front of his girlfriend to fart. Dude, just because you feel that comfortable, doesn’t mean you should do it! You still need to put in the effort to impress each other every now and then. There’s another trap. Sometimes, one party is comfy and committed, not knowing the other is looking elsewhere. Then you’re hit with a 2-week notice and left dazed and confused. Don’t mistake complacency for loyalty.

5. The Co-Creation Stage

In this stage you become a team who have chosen to create great things together! You’re going to rule the world with your new apps and tools! You’re launching polished design and buttery smooth code for the world to see! But seriously, you’ve settled in and have found your groove. You’re a dedicated team like Ohanian and Huffman (co-founders of Reddit), Page and Brin (co-founders of Google), or Ben and Jerry. No team has scuttled to the top without navigating rough patches. In fact, on a recent How I Built This episode, Ohanian and Huffman discuss their experience going to therapy together to repair their friendship and partnership. I think it’s commendable and teams should never operate under the assumption that each person is replaceable. Sure, we are, but it also takes a lot more time, energy and money to onboard new talent.

Even when you’re in a committed long term relationship (or LTR) you’ll circle back to the keep the Power Struggle stage until you learn to embrace each other’s differences. Maybe it’s just a few rough weeks at a time or maybe it spans several months. Bottom line, keep talking to each other and learn to recognize when the animosity starts to build.

Which segways perfectly into part II- Dysfunctional Relationships (and lordy, we’ve all been there). In the meantime, I look forward to happy, healthy LTR with my Zaengle team. I hope to grow, learn, laugh with them late into the... work day.

5 Stages Of Relationships