All Your Problems Are Interpersonal Relationship Problems

A Simple Model to Understand How This Works

"Tell me, what do people actually ask you to coach them about,” she asked. I was having a lovely conversation with an old friend who I had not seen in a while and we were catching up on how our lives had developed. I tried to give her a few examples of what I thought were very different issues of what I’m working with.

Later that week, I was reading something by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler and came across this:

All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.

Then, it hit me—reflecting on what I had discussed with my friend and also thinking through other examples. They may call it different things, but by far, most of the coaching challenges that I work on are about relationships.

Relationships with colleagues, bosses, across departments or even customers—even relationship with themselves—

—the common denominator in all of this has to do with how to work better with others.

Why do so many people struggle with this and why is it so important?

As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall has so eloquently demonstrated in their latest book, Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World: We join interesting organizations (brands) and we leave bad managers. The relationship with your immediate supervisor almost exclusively determines your perception of your work-life quality.

Please note that this also applies to the people who report to you. Their relationship with you accounts for the largest part of their job satisfaction and engagement.

Previously, this was simpler. Most of us had just one “boss”. But in a much more complex world, that’s no longer the case. We have matrix organizations, ad hoc teams, work groups, etc. and in all of these constellations, there’s some form of “leadership” present—leadership that makes or breaks the work experience.

A Simple Model to Understand How This Works

Here’s a very simple way to understand how important this is:

  • The quality of our relationship drives the quality of our thoughts.
  • The quality of our thoughts drives the quality of our actions.
  • The quality of our actions drive the quality of our results.

And bingo—

  • The quality of our results drive the quality of our relationships.

Ever been on the losing team or work groups that are horribly under-performing? It's no joke, right? What typically happens is that the blame game starts, and from there, we go into a downward spiral of increasingly toxic relationships, producing ever more mediocre results.

On the winning team, there’s no end to the joy and camaraderie and as we pat each other on the back enthusiastically about how well we’re doing. The team relationships get stronger and we go from success to success. And should we have a small hiccup along the way, it won’t throw us off because the relationships are solid. There’s no blame game going on.

Because of the strength of our relationships, we have a psychologically safe space, which, by the way, according to several studies, is the number one factor in determining team success.

Why then are these relationship issues such a challenge for so many people? First of all, it’s because they don't understand the tools that they have at their disposal to create good and solid work relationships.

Is it rocket science that’s reserved for Harvard psychologists? No, not at all. In fact, there are a number of very simple principles and tools that you can start practicing from tomorrow that will dramatically improve your working relationships with difficult people.

As you may now have guessed, I have decided that Working with Others is going to be the theme for the next series of blog posts. I will try and introduce you to some of the ideas and principles that have worked well for me and the people I coach.

How does that sound?

In fact, I think I will create a couple of modules on my training site that will explain it in more detail.

Finally, here’s a reflection for you to think about:

On a weekly basis, how much time do you invest in training your junior leaders on how to manage relationships, things like motivation, psychological safety, powerful conversations, among others?

Further Reading: Leadership: What, Why and How

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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.


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