Taking care of business, the relational way

There is a lot of talk about power and status coming out of top business schools. Classes with names such as “Paths to Power” abound. At the core of these courses is an awareness—honed by influential and innovative research—of the importance of power (“asymmetric control over valued resources in social relations”) and its conceptual cousin, status (“the extent to which an individual or group is respected or admired by others”).

For many people, the distinction between power and status is confusing. I like the draw the analogy to the department administrative assistant at my previous institution who controlled access to the photocopier. As one of the lowest paid positions at the university with no fancy title and few fans within the organization, this person did not have a lot of status in the traditional sense. She did, however, have a lot of power. Everyone who needed a photocopy had to go through her, which could be expedient and pleasant or slow and painful, depending on her relationship with you.

Navigating the nuances of power and status in organizations can be exhausting. More importantly, focusing too much on them can overlook another important lens: that of relationality, a perspective that accentuates the role of interpersonal interactions and connections at work. Relationality highlights the humanity that makes us different from the pre-programmed robots and algorithms that are becoming more and more integrated into our world. Relationality helps guide behavior at work in a way that helps to navigate situations in which there is uncertainty, ambiguity, overload, or in which no optimal answer for what do to exists.

An example came today in the form of a trip to the DMV to renew my car registration. Upon returning to the Washington DC area after several months on sabbatical in California, our car registration had expired. In addition, the car’s title had gotten lost somewhere over the course of of two cross-country moves, storing most of our belongings, furnishing a temporary home, and moving our stuff into a new home upon our return. I arrived at the DMV this morning discouraged by the amount of logistical things I had to do (none of which included the actual professional work I had to do) and dreading the almost certainly long wait time.

For almost an hour, fifty or so people and I waited patiently for our number to be called. Finally, my turn arrived! I walked over Counter 5. While waiting for the representative in training at Counter 5 to do something on the computer, I struck up a conversation with the unoccupied customer service representative at Counter 6. An experienced employee, she had been keeping an eye on her colleague in training in case he needed help. We quickly discovered something we had in common (close family members who were active duty military) and chatted about the topic for a few minutes.

Several minutes passed, and the customer service rep in training realized that the missing car title would be a separate transaction. He calmly informed me I would need to return to the information desk, request another ticket, and wait again for my new number to be called. I glanced at ticket line (now over 20 people long) and the crowd still waiting to be called with despair. The experienced customer service rep with whom I had been chatting noticed my expression. She said to her colleague in training, “You know you could just do that for her now.” He replied, “But it’s a separate transaction…” The senior customer service rep replied, “But you could do that for her – as a courtesy.” He still seemed unsure; she persisted. I sensed it was within the DMV’s policy to either make to return to the line again and wait for the additional transaction ticket or save me the time and take care of both transactions at in the same interaction. I felt immense relief and gratitude when the rep in training relented and completed the second transaction then and there.

So what’s the lesson here? First, power and status are important concepts to understand in professional landscapes. However, they alone do not determine how things get done in organizations. Relationality, that human interconnectivity that incites people to take one another’s perspective, is often what motivates people to use their power to unlock resources they control on someone else’s behalf. In so doing, relationality can also help people achieve higher status through the mutual liking and positive emotions elicited by interactions such as today’s experience at the DMV.