Vincent Neate: Review of ‘The Relational Lens’

I remember reading one book in particular, a novel, that I really enjoyed but which more importantly opened my eyes to a whole genre of twenty first century writing that could only rightly be described as post-Quantum. Novels which explored concepts of human existence which could not have been conceived without strange loops, quantum leaps and uncertainty of principle. This was not the first such novel I read but it was the one that opened my eyes to what the others represented. “The Relational Lens: How to see, understand and manage organisations differently’ is not a novel, and it is not part of some post-Quantum genre, but reading it does have a similar effect.

This genre of writing might be called post-GCF, were it not for the fact that the authors have been discussing and writing about relationship for touching forty years and that some of the ideas they promote go back as far as the Buddha. Actually what makes this an example of the post-GCF genre is how different it is from the previous works I have read by one or more of the quartet. The authors have done well to make the content less dry and more focused on practical application. It can still occasionally come across as slightly evangelical but the reader can easily forgive this as you get drawn in to accepting their central premise that “Relationships are the stuff of life”.

The book is divided into three parts plus an epilogue and this is helpful because all three parts can be read independently depending on where your understanding starts. The first part overtly ties relationships into the reality of existence. I find this idea that there is no living without relationships easy to accept because of my own world view. I share their early disparagement of Descartes’ immovable point and they articulate clearly the rather nice idea that ‘organisations are, fundamentally, expressions of relationships’.

This part goes on to link relationships very neatly into a whole host of business concepts from competitive advantage to risk management before exposing how it is that whilst we all agree readily that relationships are important we nevertheless frequently try hard to ignore them. They draw on historical research in psychology to explain our potential for short sightedness. Their conclusion, that we use a host of different lenses and categorisations to think about what we are experiencing in the world but rarely apply what they call a “relational interpretation”, rings true to my experience. The person sitting in the meeting with their Blackberry checking messages is looking through the lens of their own importance, or customer service or some such, but ignoring their behavioural impact on their relationship with the other participants in the meeting. The salesperson who closes the deal and then moves straight to the next target, whose lens is growth rather than shifting their client from a transactional to a relational connection.

Part two sets out the vision of relationships as structural that has been at the core of the authors’ work forever, and it contains perhaps the most important messages in the work. The rest is essentially debatable. The Relational Proximity model matters. At least it does to the authors and in reviewing the work I am conscious that I need to be able to alert you to the extent that this is justified. Does the model build on sound previous understanding

from the fields of philosophy, psychology and social science? Is the model both a step forward and internally coherent? Does the model miss anything important? Is the model practical.

The authors provide their own narrative of heritage towards the end of the first part. They draw on Will Schutz’s Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation theory positioning it as the inside out equivalent of their own theory as outside in. In other words, the theory is legitimate because a respected psychological theory uses similar observations about our behaviour to position us as essentially relating beings. I think this is justified as in all my work with relationships in organisations Eric Berne’s adult-parent-child Transactional Analysis has proved very useful. I see Schutz as an evolution of Berne. I also see support for this ‘person as relationship’ perspective in my own adherence to an existential philosophy encompassing Sartre’s ‘Being for Other’.

As to the practicality of the model, I have been working with it for almost five years now and have not yet identified a more powerful way of affecting beneficial change within and between organisations and teams.

Part three moves to advice on how to live relationally in organisations. In the context of my work with organisational relationships I frequently talk to leaders about what I think is their greatest challenge in embracing this philosophy. That is that they must make themselves vulnerable to the change they are proposing to implement. On a personal level, if I want my bond to you to become stronger I need to know what behaviours I need to change to make you come closer. On an organisational level when I lead my organisation into a relational change programme I need to accept that the cumulative behaviour changes by my people that bring your people closer to all of us may well put power over us in your hands and that I will be the most vulnerable person to that.

This really is Relationships 101: trying to make you change so that you like me better is probably futile.

What the authors do quite successfully in this volume, something they haven’t done so successfully with their ideas in the past, is to explain how the components of their relational proximity framework fit together with more ephemeral concepts such as trust, empathy, commitment and respect. They explain how their five structural components (power, purpose, history, knowledge and communication) are somehow more foundational than these things we hope for. They explain how the components fit together and influence each other. Together this does have the effect of making their explanations more practical.

The last chapter of the main body of the text introduces The Relational Leader and for those who have read much of the authors’ previous work is quite full of new ideas and articulations. I can’t repeat it all here but the passages about the leader’s relationship with time resonate well. I have experienced many individuals risen to positions of authority whose prioritisation of time has proved disastrous, both to their organisations and to them as leaders. I quote “The more highly paid you are, the more you value your time…It’s easy to assume your time is worth more than other people’s”. When you read it blandly on the page like that it is obviously something that will isolate you and produce masses of

discontent but we all do it. We value our time more as we think of ourselves as more important and as more important than the other’s time as we think of ourselves as more important than them.

‘The Relational Lens: How to see, understand and manage organisations differently’ ends with a call to action. The authors are openly advocating that whilst we might adopt their thinking for commercial benefit they do not believe we can do so without reappraising some of our the most deeply entrenched aspects of our businesses. To become relational is ultimately to become purposeful; and that means purposeful in a sense we would all recognise as more morally responsible, kinder and productive.

This book has been many years in the making but it arrives at just the right time. If we are to repair the relationships between business and society, and those between people and public service, people and politicians and people and people then we truly need a relational lens to look at the world. The authors of ‘The Relational Lens’ have given us one.

Vincent Neate is coming to the end of a twenty-year career as a partner with KPMG and will take up a new role as Chief Executive of Relationship Capital Strategies in the autumn of 2016. He is a Chartered Accountant and Master Practitioner of NLP with industry experience in the public and private equity spheres from banking to construction. Relationship Capital Strategies is the go to global company for managing and strengthening relationships in business driven by a passionate belief that every human relationship that is strengthened makes business more efficient, more resilient and more responsible.