Acknowledging difficult relationships in organizations

Nathan D. Stanton


Organizations are living, breathing places where relationships develop, grow, maintain, plateau and bring significance to the people’s lives that make up said organization. Those relationships also shape subsets of the organization as well, either by department, role within the organization or casual interests where folks gather to relate to one another over hobbies, passions, etc.

The health of an organization is built on the symbiotic nature of these relationships and the individual’s willingness to be with others while not taking responsibility for them when we disagree or feel like we know better than they do. Health happens in an organization when we are able to appreciate and celebrate others and their ongoing growth. Our relationships are strengthened by our willingness to walk with one another and even help one another when we don't see eye to eye.
Our ability to self-regulate ourselves in relationships with others when we don’t agree or feel like we could do better strengthens the overall capacity of the organization for the future. Too often, it is the inability to celebrate growth in others just as we would like to be celebrated that begins to function like cancer in an organization. Malignancy in an organization is really no different than what happens to the human body when a selfish mass begins to eat away at the strength of the body for no other reason than to sustain its own life-debilitating mission. Edwin Friedman outlines a number of points about people’s malignant behavior in organizational life:

  • They tend to be easily hurt “injustice-collectors, slow healers who are given to victim attitudes” (it is as if they had no outer membrane to ensure their integrity).
  • They tend to idolize their leaders until their unrealistic expectations fail, whereupon they are quick to crucify their “gods” (there is a parasitic quality to their bonding).
  • Their intent is often “innocently provocative;” they do not see themselves as bent on destruction. The pathology they promote is rather a byproduct of their doing what comes naturally, so they never see how they contribute to the condition they complain about.
  • Their repertoire of responses, as with the most primitive forms of life, is limited to being “on” or “off.” This manifests itself in their linear, black-and-white formulations for life; their unconditional, with-us-or-against us attitudes; and their inability to tolerate differences or dissent.
  • They tend to focus on procedure and on rituals, and, as if their heads did not swivel, they get stuck on the content of issues rather than being able to view the surrounding emotional processes that are spawning the issues.
  • They find that light and truth, the element that is most healthy to other forms of life, is toxic to their nature.  They thrive in the darkness of conspiracy like anaerobic bacteria, such as botulism, which are hangovers from a very early stage of life.
  • They seem to be driven by their reptilian brains rather than their cortex and thus manifest three basic characteristics of the reptilian way of life:  they have a high degree of reactivity, a narrow range of responses, and of course they are always serious—deadly serious.
  • As with all organisms that lack self-definition and self-regulation, they tend to ooze into, if not directly interfere in, the relationships of others. Thus they wreck staff communication and connections, and bypass, if not subvert, democratic processes.
  • They tend to be easily stampeded and panicked into group-think, thus fusing with others like them into an undifferentiated mass (like a tumor).
  • They are unforgivingly relentless and totally invulnerable to insight. Unless walled off or totally defeated, they tend to come back with a vengeance, as when an antibiotic is not taken for the fully prescribed period.

Friedman, E., & Treadwell, M. (2007). Pages 144-146. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New ed.): 144-146. New York: Seabury Books.

The healing powers of such behavior are health and momentum brought about by a collective vision for the health of the organization. Such vision is undergirded by the courage of leadership to stand against and not participate in the malignant behaviors of the unmotivated few which exist in every organization. 
We’re reminded by the Apostle Paul to act with an adult-like love in his letter to the Church in Corinth; 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Be encouraged in the strength that exists in your life and your church. Strive for a vision that carries you and your church toward a biblical vision for love that allows life-giving relationships which free one another to live out the call to follow Jesus wherever we serve.
  • Avoid gossip and invite the other to bring their issue to the person’s attention about whom they are talking.
  • Speak possibility into other people’s lives. See what they do well and lift them for the gifts they bring to your relationship and to your organization. Don’t we all need to be lifted up?
  • Keep your word. If you tell someone that you will help them or be present for something communicate with them do what you say you’ll do or let them know you can’t be there. Take responsibility for your part of the relationship!
  • Participate openly in your relationships and in your organization or church. When you speak, remember to use, “I believe” statements rather than imposing on others “we should” or “we ought to” statements. Invite other opinions that might be different from your own!