Trust series 1 of 5: What can Valentine’s Day teach us about deepening business relationships?

Developing romantic relationships is risky. And deepening business relationships can be even more risky! So, is the risk worth it and how do you manage it?

With Valentine’s Day fresh in our memories, I’m sure there will be some of you who will know all too well about the nature of the risk involved in developing romantic relationships. What’s the nature of that risk?

  • You can misread the state of your relationship and end up doing something that bombs (maybe badly!).
  • You can make an expression of affection that leaves you feeling exposed and you might not get the response you expected. You end up feeling vulnerable.
  • You receive an expression of affection and you respond in a way that doesn’t match your partner’s expectations. They feel angry, upset or snubbed.

What a minefield!

Business relationships can be similarly tricky.

In one of the classic books on building trusted relationships, ‘The Trusted Adviser’ by Maister D, Green C & Galford R, they describe the elements of trusworthiness, which is integral to building a trusted relationships, as Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy divided by self-orientation. They describe the process by which trust flourishes as very similar to the way a romantic relationship blooms:

“The most effective, as well as the most common sources of differentiation in trustworthiness come from intimacy and self-orientation. Both of these are relatively scarce, compared to credibility and reliability. People trust those with whom they are willing to talk about difficult agendas (intimacy), and those who demonstrate they care (low self-orientation).”[1]

Intimacy (and self-orientation) are scarce because it’s easy to get them wrong; for example, clumsy attempts to establish intimacy can back-fire.

When we talk about intimacy, we don’t necessarily mean that clients or colleagues share their private lives with us. This may happen, but it is not implicit. We do mean that things personal related to the issues at hand get shared. We are talking about emotional honesty and that often means being vulnerable which can feel uncomfortable.

Let me give you a real personal example.

I was working on a high profile project for the international chairman of a well-known business. We developed a project plan and allocated responsibilities and agreed clear timescales. All good so far except I was dragging my feet on a couple of my responsibilities, but we hadn’t gone past deadlines, so not a major issue. Imagine my surprise when I returned from a week’s holiday (we were still within deadline) to find that that the international chairman had unilaterally actioned one of my responsibilities! My first reaction was relief – I didn’t need to worry about it anymore, but then a sense of frustration started to fester – I felt I had been treated with disrespect and I had a growing urge to say something to the international chairman – to be emotionally honest with them.

As I contemplated speaking to them, I began to feel uneasy. What if they laughed at me and were dismissive of my feelings?

I also did a fair bit of catastrophising[2] – what if they threw me off the project for daring to challenge them? What if it damaged our relationship irreparably? Blah, blah blah – the inner critic was in overdrive.

At the same time this was happening I was leading a senior level development programme on enhancing executive presence through being emotionally vulnerable and authentically saying what you felt. If I was going to have any integrity in leading it I knew I HAD to have that conversation.

I got myself ready and made sure I could see into the chairman’s glass office from my vantage point in the open plan space – so I could seize my moment when he was free. As a Country Head was leaving his office I pounced. Heart pounding and wondering whether this emotional honesty thing really was a good idea, I got to my feet and headed in. I knocked and asked if it was convenient to have a five minute conversation. I was invited to take a seat. As I prepared to spill my guts, I suddenly felt very vulnerable and a little stupid. However, I’d gotten this far and I wasn’t turning back now.

I was breathing deeply and had my feet planted firmly on the floor with my back pushed firmly into the lumber of the chair. I calmly explained the sequence of events and finished up by saying how I felt about it. At that point I paused and there was a long silence whilst we both maintained eye contact. They looked stony faced and serious. That wasn’t helping my emotional state at all. After what seemed like a ridiculously lengthy period of time, a smile broke out on their face and they said, “In that case, I owe you an apology.” In that moment the atmosphere changed and suddenly I felt very close to the Chairman.

After that incident a strange thing happened – I had a lot more contact with the Chairman and our relationship ended up deepening and becoming more expansive. It was then that I realised that Maister et al were right – intimacy is rare and because of that it is truly distinguishing. I suspect there were very few people who were emotionally honest with the Chairman and consequently people that were had a closer more trusted relationship.

Done well, gaining intimacy can really help to build trust – both in business and romantic relationships. Yes, you may have to move out of your comfort zone but it can be de-risked if planned properly.

1. Need some tools to apply these concepts and skills? Click here
2. Need people in your organisation to be better at building trusted relationships? Click here for a short module that you can deliver which will achieve this.

[1] Maister D, Green C, Galford R (2000:77) ‘The trusted adviser.’ Touchstone, New York
[2] “Catastrophizing has two parts: Part 1: Predicting a negative outcome. Part 2: Jumping to the conclusion that if the negative outcome did in fact happen, it would be a catastrophe.” Source: