Leadership for Life – The Hierarchy of Relationships

By on June 1, 2012
The Hierarchy of Relationships

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Back when I was in college (when dinosaurs walked the earth), I had a great faculty advisor (I’ll call her Ronnie), who was the college liaison to a campus group I was a member of. At the time, I was majoring in Engineering and struggling. One day Ronnie and I were talking about our respective college experiences, and she told me that she had majored in Recreation.

“Recreation?” I said uncomprehendingly. “You can major in Recreation?” I imagined climbing a jungle gym in the park, girding my loins for a killer game of chess, studying for a final exam in Frisbee®.

In the course of conversation, Ronnie described some of the content of one of her courses. She described it as the “Hierarchy of Relationships.” OK, at the time I barely understood the definition of hierarchy (definitely couldn’t spell it), but I was intrigued. Once she explained it all to me, I knew immediately that 40 some-odd years in the future, I would be using that explanation to help leaders become better networkers. (If you want to hear about it in more detail, call me at 314-539-5329, or email me at bschapiro@stlcc.edu).

Here’s what it’s all about:

When you walk into a room full of people you don’t know, there’s a certain level of anxiety you feel. It’s pretty common among most people to feel some discomfort in unstructured social situations. So we look for something to help us feel more relaxed. In the old days, we might whip out a cigarette, just to have something to do with our hands. Nowadays smoking is taboo in most social situations, so what do we do? Some people head for the bar and get a drink to hold onto. If there’s food around, maybe a plate of mini-eggrolls will do the trick. When I’m working with an unfamiliar group, I latch on to the nearest marker and hover casually around a flip chart. Holding onto some kind of inanimate object provides a level of comfort and control necessary to feeling more relaxed in the situation. It also represents the first level of the relationship hierarchy – individual to object.

Relating first to an object allows complete control of the situation, and enables you to bring your anxiety to a more manageable level. After a moment or two, you’re ready to move to the next level of the relationship hierarchy – individual to individual. Carefully balancing your little plate of toasted ravioli, you look around the room and locate another person standing alone. Feeling confident, you step up to that person, stick your hand out and introduce yourself.

Let the small talk begin. (Wait – you say you don’t know how to talk small? Get a copy of Susan RoAne’s (http://www.susanroane.com/) classic “How to Work a Room.” Plenty of great tips on how to become a “maven of mingling.”) Before you know it, you’re socializing like mad, and your confidence level is soaring. “This isn’t so hard,” you say to yourself. You’re ready for the next level.

Oddly enough, the next level is not individual to pair, as many might think. It’s actually individual to group (three or more). Groups are naturally more permeable than pairs. So you sidle up to a small group of people chatting with one another, stand patiently on the periphery as you listen in on the conversation, and then, at the opportune moment, put your two cents in. Miraculously, the group opens up to admit you, and you’re now part of the conversation.
If you’re interested in connecting with someone already in a pair, the best way to do that is to create a pair of your own, then the two of you can move over to the others and you can create a group. The pair to pair level of the hierarchy is a little like one of those sub-atomic particles that exists only for microseconds before combining with another particle to become Something Else.

Climbing the hierarchy of relationships enables you to gradually increase your level of comfort when surrounded by people you don’t know, and allows you to build a network of new friends and acquaintances. Great leaders are always well networked, both within and outside their own organizations.

Thanks, Ronnie!

About Barry Schapiro

Barry is the Workforce Solutions Group Practice Leader for Leadership and Professional Development. His experience includes delivery and management of business training in a variety of industries, with specialties in leadership, team development, generational diversity, and customer service. Twitter

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