Stocking Your Relationship Improvement Toolbox

A while back, I was given a project that would ultimately lead to improved processes, produce less waste, and create a utopian working environment envious.

I just made up that part about utopia, but if you’re going to aim for something, aim high. Right?

From the moment the objectives were explained, I was motivated. I liked the idea of methodologies and analyzing complicated processes broken into little steps.

I could spend hours blissfully poring over bubbles and swim lanes in search of better performance.

My teammates did not share my enthusiasm on this project and in fact their enthusiasm had left the building. There were some lessons to learn.

While this story sounds like a girlfriend’s guide to process improvement, the underlying message is all about relationship improvement. Teamwork is the backbone of productivity. Rarely is a person credited with completing a project singlehandedly. Wherever there are people, there are relationships and they are not inanimate widgets on an assembly line.

People are a conglomeration of talents, skills, backgrounds, personalities, opinions, and attitudes that will often run counter to each other. There is a resolute need to get along and be able to work together agreeably – even if we disagree. If we are wise, we’ll bring out the industrial sized toolbox and build some solid relationships.

Recall that I was coming in hot on this project, pencils sharpened, white boards glistening, and markers that smelled like fruit (yes, they did) ready for our project meeting. I don’t have to tell the rest of the story; you to know where this is going. Stephen Covey, in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, introduced the concept of the emotional bank account. He said positive things feed our emotional bank account while negative things make withdrawals. Let’s fast forward to lessons learned from working through three of the most frustrating relational episodes.


Indecision and incessant vacillations practically guarantee progress will come to a standstill. By their nature, processes have many working parts and there are countless ways to accomplish the same goal. Some team members have genuine fear of multiple solutions or are passionate about leaving things as they are.

Feed The Emotional Bank Account - We divided the full project into smaller work groups to simplify the context. This helped those who struggled with ambivalence to get off the fence and not worry that they were in danger of choosing the wrong alternative or creating an irreversible risk. It’s important for individuals to be confident in knowing their fears are valid, that others feel anxiety too, but that we will all be there working through the changing processes and making sure that the proposed change is best.

Argumentative - You don’t have anyone on your project team who argues. Right? Argumentative people want to be heard, and not just heard, they want to be acknowledged and understood. It might be necessary to take those who continually argue aside and speak with them privately, but the tools to use in either case are the same.

Feed The emotional Bank Account - Listen to understand the real subject of the argument. Be kind. Don’t take offense to shared thoughts and ideas. This is not about you even if it feels like that. Passion breeds arguments and when you talk about changing the as-is to the to-be, passions rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Get to the specifics; don’t guess at the root of the argument. 

Be direct and don’t embed this topic into a conversation about something else. It’s unlikely that the real topic will be revealed if it’s covered with something else. Then be generous with compliments and pointing out skills and experiences of individuals that are needed to successfully complete the project.


Of all the things that drain the energy and motivation from a team, animosity ranks right up there at the top. It’s difficult to resolve differences when people have disdain for each other and refuse to work together peaceably.

Feed The emotional Bank Account - It’s important to be objective and impartial when trying to assimilate warring team members. Publicly recognize the intrinsic qualities of individuals and the combined values they bring to the team. Get them to talk about their grievances candidly so you know what’s going on behind their eyes. If you can do this as a team, it will open a transparent dialog, but realize the team members might not be ready for emotional calisthenics.

Consider the baseline of what needs to be accomplished and come to consensus on assignment details, team classifications, and the roles each team member will play. Acknowledge the background and talents of each person so they know they fill a unique place on the team. There is no magic formula for soothing animosity or antagonism on a team, and no pixie dust that makes everyone feel the love. There are tools for working through differences that make strides in that direction.

What Can We Learn From This

Back then, one of the main objectives of that project was to reengineer our processes to create new ones that would ultimately produce positive results, then repeat them again and again. Why shouldn’t we do the same thing with building relationships? Turn the workplace into a feeding frenzy for emotional bank accounts.Find behaviors that make deposits in emotional bank accounts, then repeat them again and again.

Things like listening with all our senses, understanding, empathizing, and being generous with compliments. Try it often and be specific:

“You did a great job on that needs analysis.”

“Way to find the defects in that code.”

“Good job on the presentation to the client group.” Your turn...

Remember, the goal isn’t to complete this one project. The real goal is to build relationships that will sustain the organization though innumerable projects. It’s possible that people who are forced to work together will build a rapport and completely change the team dynamics so future projects don’t go through the same resistance.


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