A recent exchange got me musing about a fundamental blind spot in North American business culture.
I received a very kind and glowing reference letter from a client that began with, “Although my normal modus operandi is to keep my personal and professional relationships distinct, I’ve come to consider us friends.” Why do executives in the U.S. prefer to keep their business relationships separate from their personal ones? I submit that, to get the most out of your business relationships, break down that barrier.
The rest of the world builds relationships first, from which they do business, not the other way around. But in the US it’s very typical for executives to keep a distinct separation between the two spheres.
It’s driven into us in business school that we are somehow more objective if we keep our distance. Your judgment doesn’t get clouded if you don’t get close to anybody. I’ve even heard people say, “It’s going to be hard for me to fire somebody if we’re friends.” Our fundamental American need for efficiency tells us “focus on the business part. If and only if that part works, you may bring in a personal relationship component.” I believe these are flawed assumptions.
Personal relationships create the conditions for candor
We’re taught to separate our business and personal friends, especially with consultants and outside advisors. That’s very typical for executives. I don’t know where it comes from, I believe that my relationship with this client has become that much stronger, that much more productive, as a result of our becoming friends. That friendship has come from a healthy dose of pushback, leading to mutual respect, but also because of our intentional effort.
In DC recently we were working together until a late hour. It would have been very easy for me just to go back to my hotel and order room service. But he invited me to his home, where I meet his wife and children. He jumped in the kitchen and made fresh risotto—the best I ever had. Since then he’s been to my home in Atlanta, met my family. Every time we work together we make time for a dinner outing. We laugh, we talk about great experiences, and we show our vulnerabilities. We build trust.
In his reference letter he wrote, “The Executive Director/CEO role of a professional society is a lonely job as there are few individuals one can rely on for candor and unfiltered counsel.” Would he appreciate me in this way if I kept my personal life out of sight when working with him? I don’t think so.
Let people see who you are, not just what you do
He closed his letter saying, “I find our intellectual banter stimulating and collaborative approach in creating a stronger outcome re-energizing.” Of course it felt good to read that. But this isn’t just a feel-good message.
Three thousand years of history shows us that people prioritize work for people they know, like and trust. We all hold ourselves more accountable to the people who reward us for our contributions to their desired outcomes. I’m not referring to mere financial rewards, but the more motivating knowledge that we are invested in each others’ success.
To get the most out of your business relationships, be sure you are dealing with the economic buyer, then invest in the personal side as much as you invest in the professional. And it doesn’t hurt if you can cook a great meal.
- To get more from your business relationships, allow professional and personal spheres to blend.
- Personal relationships open channels for greater candor, especially between senior leaders and outside advisors.
- People prioritize their commitments to people they know, like and trust.