In a large institution where I worked for many years, I heard stories about the facilities manager.  Kathy was an annoying and inflexible nitpicker, I was told.  Everyone had a story – we all had to work with her to arrange space and technical support for our meetings and workshops.

Months after I arrived, I too had my moment with Kathy.  I needed access to meeting rooms at unusual hours.  This required a special key – which she tightly controlled.   I also needed permission to bring in special equipment.

How to Use the Two Step

In a situation like this, the two step approach is one of the first to consider.  There’s important problems requiring this person’s help, and reports of dicy relationships.  The two steps comes in several forms and I’ll write about those in other posts.  Here I decided on this: 
     Step One:  Take steps to establish or affirm the relationship.
     Step Two:  Engage in problem-solving or task activity.

That’s not the way I would naturally approach someone.  When I have a lot of work to do I am task-focused.  It would have been natural for me to skip Step One entirely, that is, to dash into Kathy’s office, say a hasty good morning, and plunge straight into presenting my list of requirements. 

Which First, Task or Relationship?

Even if I managed to do it in a cordial way, that would not be conflict style aware.  Everybody has  patterns they prefer for how to go about solving problems.  A key place where preferences differ is task versus relationship.  Which is more important? 

In conflict style frameworks (eg: my own or the similar Thomas Kilmann inventory), giving priority to relationships indicates a conflict style quite different than when we give priority to getting a job done or achieving a goal.

An awful lot of needless conflict exists simply because people aren’t conscious of their own conflict style preferences and therefore don’t have a clue about how to work with the conflict style preferences of others.  If I had approached Kathy in my usual task-focused way, it’s likely that I would have walked out a few minutes later muttering the same things everyone else said about inflexible Kathy.

But I know myself and my tendencies.  I decided to make a guess at Kathy’s.  How could I lose by leading with friendliness?  When I arrived at Kathy’s office I was ready with a strategy:  I opened by mentioning our recent email exchange.  I said I was happy to put a face to the name and that she had a reputation for keeping the facilities well-organized and knowing where to find things.  

My colleagues, of course, thought she was a control freak, a functionary who enjoyed the power of her keys.   Walking to her office, I’d been searching for something positive I could say.  It occurred to me that there really is a good side to tight management and that I could probably figure out a way to sincerely complement her on it.

It worked.  She smiled and said it drove her crazy keeping track of everything.  I commiserated and said we’re all lucky I didn’t have her job because I’d lose everything in a week.  She smiled about that too.

Now it was easy to get down to serious business.    She listened carefully to my needs, booked the off-hours rooms without hesitation, went over the policy on off-hour facilities, and told me when to come and get the key.   

The fabled Kathy, my ally!  Cost to me? Caring enough to try, a few minutes of forethought, and three minutes of chit-chat.  In the years that followed, every request I made of her sailed across her desk.  I simply made a point, whenever we talked, to start with chit-chat for the first couple of minutes.

It’s probable that, like Kathy,  a significant percentage of the people with whom you live and work are wired with a strong inner sense that relationships come first, then tasks.  There are cultures, of course, where it would be rude not to begin nearly every conversation with small talk.  But even there, some individuals are wired with a stronger expectation than others to connect before turning to tasks.

Connection to Conflict Styles (Style Matters and Thomas Kilmann inventory)

For more details on how task and relationship relate to conflict styles, view my “Intro to Conflict Styles” slideshow.  Almost everyone who scores high in the Harmonizing conflict style of my Style Matters inventory  (the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory calls it the Accommodating style) shares Kathy’s preference for connecting at the level of relationship before settling down to serious work.  

No Big Deal Out Needed – Just Make it Personal

You don’t to make have to make it a big deal to attend to the relationship.   Just make sure to start with something that acknowledges or affirms the human being in front of you before turning to serious work.  Bring a cup of coffee or donut as a gift, inquire about a family member, chit-chat about sports or local gossip, notice a new hairdo, appreciate a picture or souvenir on the wall, tell a joke at your expense.  A couple of minutes is all it takes, at the beginning of every work session and periodically, during them.

When to Lead with Task and Not Relationship

This two-step works for some but not all people.  People who are highly task focused, including most of those who score high in the Directing (Forcing in the TKI) style of my inventory, mostly prefer the opposite sequence.  For them, the work at hand is ever beckoning and takes priority.  They value a process that keeps social pleasantries perfunctory and moves promptly to tasks.   But after the work of the moment is done or well underway, even many task oriented people appreciate relaxing for a few minutes for personal exchanges that deepen relationships.

Conflict Style Awareness Opens Space for Creative Responses

Like other conflict style strategies, the two step still requires you to figure out solutions.  But it opens space for people to be more flexible than they would be without it.  If you work with relationship-focused people in ways that first take care of their concern for relationships, they often turn out to be great problem-solvers.   

The two-step belongs in everyone’s personal toolkit.  I estimate that 25% or more of human beings have a strong instinct to give priority to the human connection over task.  

The story above highlights use of the strategy with individuals, but it is essential also in group decision making or conflict resolution.  Things go better when discussion processes include recognition not just of tasks but of relationships.  Facilitators and leaders should plan to address both.

In other posts in this series, I’ll show you Two-Steps for other kinds of situations, for example, with people who are very task focused.