Exposing Vulnerabilities Key to Cultivating Relationships

By Pamela Babcock Jun 30, 2011

NEW YORK—The No. 1 predictive element of success is relationship growth. And all relationships are built and strengthened based on one key element—vulnerability—said one expert who spoke about building better business relationships at The New York Forum, held June 20, 2011.

“The most powerful element of any relationship is the willingness to accelerate vulnerability,” relationship guru Keith Ferrazzi, author of Who’s Got Your Back (Broadway Books, 2009), told those attending the event. But, he cautioned, “being purposeful does not mean being fake.”

Ferrazzi noted that in the old days, small talk would help make people feel safe and trusted. As a result, conversations had higher degrees of candor, higher mutual accountability and risk-taking. These days, high turnover, globalization and virtualization all mean people are “thrown into meetings” with people with whom they feel less safe.

Ferrazzi, founder of the Institute for the Relational and Collaborative Sciences in Los Angeles, contends that “sociological isolation enabled by technology” is causing people to increasingly hide behind iPad and BlackBerry devices. But that’s not to say that technology can’t be used collaboratively.

“The crisis is that if we do not engineer new people rules into our work process, we are going to be less productive,” Ferrazzi said, in short, because people fail to connect.

Individual Performance vs. Relationship Building

Ferrazzi said that Americans are the most transactional Western culture but the farther East you go, the more relational people are. “You don’t do business in the Far East without having a relationship,” he said.

Ferrazzi studies “people skills” in a global context within a professional environment; how important they are, how predictive they are, and more importantly, whether there are interventions that can be made in teams, in sales forces and organizations to boost collaboration and outcomes.

He said he’s working with Cisco on a number of studies to increase relational performance in a virtual environment, such as when using tele-presence, Skype or WebEx conferencing technologies. When his team looked at 900 tele-presence conversations, they found no small talk. Before the call, people would “be on their e-mail, avoiding the interaction on that screen until the agenda started.”

To boost relational performance, he recommended a “Personal/Professional Check-in”—short periods of small talk at the outset of any interaction to allow for higher degrees of risk taking, candor and performance.

At Cisco, team members now spend 30 seconds to a minute each saying what’s going on in their life personally and professionally. It’s a practice Ferrazzi encourages other clients to adopt to help ensure better communication and candid discussion, which leads to higher performance.

“You can chose to draw the line at how much you share; it can be very innocuous—not very much—if you don’t feel that it’s appropriate,” he said. “But at a minimum, there’s a bit of a check-in that allows people to quiet the reptilian brain and to be able to have some sort of social acclimation.”

Relationship Action Plan

Ferrazzi recommended a “Relationship Action Plan” to help identify people critical to an individual’s success and to measure the strength of individual relationships. To illustrate his point, he asked attendees to think about their business goals for the next 18 months, then to identify the three people most important to achieving those goals.

Relationship action planning requires one to focus on intimacy, generosity, candor and accountability. Cultivation of all four can only happen in an atmosphere that fosters social familiarity, according to Ferrazzi.

He recommended creating such a plan around all individual goals, such as learning goals and the hard and soft skills one needs to reach the next level. The key is to create a roadmap with mentors and individuals from which one can learn.

Ferrazzi said he recently challenged one of the largest sales forces in North America to name “the 25 most important people to the growth of [their] business.” Then, he said, he asked each salesperson to rate his or her relationship strength with each of those 25 names on a scale of negative 1 (meaning there was a damaged reputation) to 0 (don’t know) through 3 (someone ‘I have a friendship with.’)”

He said the “average relational quality” of the sales force to those people deemed most important to their business’ growth was 0.7, but “by just measuring it and tracking it—without even a training intervention—we were able to move [the average] by a quarter of a point.”

Ferrazzi said that such a plan is not a one-way street, however. The key for individuals is to help others on their list become more successful, too. “Nobody has time for us unless we’re going to reach out to this world with a lot of generosity,” Ferrazzi said. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I help?’ ”

Which Do You Trust More?

Ferrazzi concluded his presentation by showing how vulnerability and a personal/professional check-in can change the way one is viewed. He said that he could have introduced himself as the Yale undergrad and Harvard Business School graduate who went on to become the youngest partner at Deloitte, the youngest officer at a Fortune 500 company, and an author of a New York Times best-seller.

Or he could have talked about growing up in an immigrant Italian family near Pittsburgh, Pa., where his father was a steelworker and his mother a housekeeper. Determined to get a good education, they sent him to a small private school, which the family drove to every day in a rusty green vehicle, pulling up next to classmates who were chauffeur-driven. Ferrazzi said he was teased about his clothing and the way he spoke.

“It was embarrassing and difficult for me,” recalled Ferrazzi, who said at that point that he vowed, “to work harder and faster to do everything I could to not be like that again.” He asked the audience if his transparency and authenticity had changed what they thought of him and what he had to say.

“I trust you more,” said one attendee.

Mission accomplished.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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