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Managing Relationships

Any time we have more than one person in a room, we’re engaging in some sort of relationship management.
The formula for relationships is simple: T+V+D=R
Trust + Value + Dialogue = Relationship

Emotional safety needs to be considered, whether it’s a boss/employee, mentor/mentee or colleague/colleague relationship. In the podcast, Rod and Dale consider emotional safety as the result of creating an environment that allows two people to be authentic without fear of judgment. This doesn’t mean there’s no conflict or that you don’t challenge each other, but you engage in these activities in a way that respects the boundaries and who each other is.

The following discussion contemplates relationship management in an emotionally safe environment.

Our blog posts are a condensed version of our podcast! Listen to the episode linked above to hear Rod and Dale take you through this content.


Trust is the core of any effective relationship. Depending on the relationship in question, the appropriate level of trust differs. You likely won’t have the same trust relationship with a coworker as you do with a family member or close friend. In addition, the foundation of that trust may also be different.

In a project context, you’ll likely trust the person to fulfill their role, trust that they will honour their commitments, be accessible and act as part of the team.

Trust can be especially difficult to establish within a project because the people you work with are not necessarily one’s you’ve worked with before or will work with for an extended period. This means you must build relationships – and that trust – quickly and maybe differently than before.

Dale brings up one of these different trust foundations; borrowed trust.
“If I don’t know the person very well, that person may be sort of borrowing trust; they’re coming to me with a recommendation from somebody else that I trust. And so I’m willing to extend [trust] because I trust the person who’s recommending them, I trust the person who’s told me that they have the expertise and that they’re great to work with, etc.”

The more you work together and develop that trust, the deeper trust grows.


Value in this equation has two meanings: the value a person brings to our life and the values we share with that person.

When we look at the value part of the equation, Rod likes the DRPI acronym, which stands for depth, relevance, position and influence. Especially in the project setting, relevance and position often go hand in hand. It’s important to remember people’s role and how that role can shape the relationship.

Consider who the sponsor is, who the client is, and who influences some of those decisions. Otherwise, you may spend time and energy building a relationship or trying to convince somebody of something, to discover that they didn’t have any power (influence) to make that decision anyway. On the flip side, be aware of silent partners and people working behind the scenes and the value they can bring.

Bob Iger, the chairman of Disney at the time of recording, considered who he knew and their influence when Disney was looking to buy Lucas Films. Iger didn’t know George Lucas very well, but he knew Steve Jobs from when Disney acquired Pixar, and Jobs knew Lucas. The strength of Iger’s relationship with George was built on the value borrowed from George’s relationship with Jobs.

The second type of value, shared values, can be anything from integrity and getting places early to prioritizing family and pets. The goal of common values is to humanize the other person in your eyes, to stop you from thinking of them as a role or an obstacle and put them back in the context of another human being.

These shared values, common understanding or starting points allow us to disagree while maintaining an excellent relationship. We don’t disagree on fundamental values but on points of order, opinions or taste.

Rod likes to joke that the most important part of a project kickoff is the drinks and meal at the end of the day because that’s when you learn about people as individuals. By sharing that they enjoy skiing or have a strong relationship with their parents, they’ve made themselves accessible humans, which can help make up for gaps in other areas.


Dialogue is how we get to a relationship: talking to, sharing with, and understanding each other. But dialogue doesn’t always just happen; we must be intentional about it.

A genuine relationship has five touches a year. A touch can be a phone call, a visit, or some other meaningful interaction. Less than five touches a year isn’t a relationship; it’s an acquaintance.

In the project context, the project manager, who usually has the greatest vested interest in the project’s success, can help ensure there’s a dialogue between the team.

Doing the Math

The real power of this equation is found in the nature of addition. Where one element is low, another element can balance it out, resulting in a relationship stable enough to become strong. The equation is a “+,” so we can pull on each element to balance out the relationship result.

We’re less likely to have deep trust or a deep relationship with those we don’t share values with because of a fundamental disconnect. When we share values with others, we often want to stay in touch because those shared values give us a wealth of areas to connect. The result is more dialogue and likely a deeper relationship. To get to that deep relationship, we need trust. We need to be vulnerable enough to disclose things about ourselves, which increases value.

In the podcast episode, Dale breaks down the balancing act that the equation allows, showing what it can look like more practically. “the individual components might become more important because of a deficiency in one of the other categories, right? If there’s two people on a project, who’ve done hundreds of projects together, we kind of know what each other’s thinking before we even finished the sentence, all the rest of that stuff, right? [Here] the dialogue may be less important. But the less trust, the less shared values, the less shared experiences, the less of all that we have, the more the dialogue becomes important. And you need to over-communicate, over-dialogue, keep having the conversations, keep asking the questions, all that stuff to make up for that sort of lack, which we often have in these project arrangements.”

Sometimes, especially when there are cultural differences or the relationship has to start up quickly, shared values can fill in the gaps in trust or help affirm that borrowed trust.

When we think of relationships within projects, it doesn’t matter how quickly the cement cures or the quality of the steel. At the end of the day, projects fail or succeed on people – on relationships. And the more we can develop and build that trust, the greater the likelihood that the project will work out. How we create trust in those projects will have a big bearing on the success of us as leaders and of the project that we’re leading.

Author: Ela Stilwell