How Babies’ Examples Can Help Us Strengthen Work Relationships

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

Most of us believe that being in a successful relationship with our boss, colleagues or subordinates means we understand each other well and feel aligned and in sync on—well, if not everything, than at least on the important issues. According to experts, leaders must offer positive energy, empathy, inspiration and care in good working relationships. But that assumption may put too much of the burden of relationship on leaders alone.

Here’s an alternative point of view. Child development studies show that even infants of two to six months of age who haven’t yet developed language skills possess a sense of agency and the ability to reconnect with their caregivers following relationship disconnections. This proof of babies’ potential for reconnection provides a sense of optimism and the knowledge that we can also reconnect as adults, according to Claudia M. Gold, MD, a pediatrician specializing in early childhood mental health and the coauthor with Ed Tronick, PhD of The Power of Discord: Why the Ups and Downs of Relationships Are the Secret to Building Intimacy, Resilience, and Trust.

In a recent conversation, Gold explained that most baby-parent interactions are mismatched rather than attuned. The simplest example occurs when a baby is trying to engage and the parent happens to turn away. If the majority of those interactions are repaired, say, when the baby reattracts the parent’s attention, then healthy development continues. These mismatches and repairs occur multiple times each day and are actually necessary for babies to experience the “growth of themselves in the world and also sense their ability to be in relationship with others.” And the mismatch/repair paradigm continues to apply to us throughout life. So what lessons can we take from babies to improve our relationships and sense of connectedness at work?

Learn To Tolerate The Messiness Of Workplace Relationships

Just as babies can be out of sync with their parents as much as 70% of the time, our work relationships often go wrong and need fixing. Just think about the ways that workplace dynamics around compensation, hierarchy or conflicting goals create powerful tensions. And yet such mismatches are not only normal but necessary: messiness permits and supports creativity and innovation in ways that rigid thinking and absolute power do not.

“If there’s a sense that mismatch is to be avoided at all costs, and that relationships have to be smooth, then you squash any opportunity for repair,” Gold explains. Skillful adults can tolerate the mess and stress of workplace mismatches and grow from repairing them. For example, “the more comfortable you feel and are confident in your role as the boss, the more likely you are to accept messiness,” Gold says. She draws a parallel between parents who were treated badly as children and become authoritarian parents themselves, and bosses who “can only be comfortable being the absolute boss.”

It’s Appropriate To Behave Differently With Different People

Babies understand that their parents are different from them and also from other caregivers, says Gold, and they learn the various patterns of being in relationship by interacting with lots of different people. Therefore, if one relationship is challenging, the positive strength of other relationships can counteract it and contribute to a baby’s wellbeing.

So don’t let yourself feel devastated by one awful coworker or your difficult boss—instead, engage with the other good people around you. Use what you know about each individual to interact with them in the way that will be most beneficial for that particular relationship or for your goals together.

Get Over Your Attachment To Certainty About Others

We’ve all worked with people who have rigid thinking about how others should behave and show intolerance when people don’t meet their expectations. If we assume we know best or that everyone sees a situation from our vantage point, we can get stuck inside a feeling of rightness, or what journalist Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, calls “error blindness.” Then we’re likely to treat others’ divergence from our opinions as coming from their ignorance, stupidity or malevolence. Gold suggests that rigid thinking is an adaptive function that helps guard against anxiety but simultaneously impedes a rigid person’s ability to connect with others.

The rigidity may alleviate anxiety in the short term, explains Gold, but “in the long term, it doesn’t allow for growth. So the solution then is the safety and connection that allows people to tolerate some anxiety of not knowing exactly where things are going.” She recommends cultivating a sense of curiosity and anticipation whenever you approach a colleague, because every individual has an unique set of relational experiences that affect their perceptions and expectations. “If each player could start from that place of wondering about the motivations and intentions of the other, rather than being certain about the motivations of the other, that’s where you can begin to shift things,” Gold says. “If you can embrace the stance of ‘I don’t know where you’re coming from’ and be comfortable with that, then you have the most chance of success of eventually finding your way to connecting.”

Repair Is Always A Possibility

We often beat ourselves up for not thinking of the smart, compassionate or inspiring thing we should have said until a meeting or conversation is over. But the concept of repairing mismatches provides many opportunities to reopen a topic or continue a conversation. Developing a new approach for the second attempt at the conversation lets you give the other person something fresh to consider as you present additional data or propose a new deal structure. Or you can revisit a dialog to express your understanding of the situation and the other person’s viewpoint and highlight your shared interests. These forms of repair can strengthen a work relationship even when you don’t get the outcome you want from the conversation; in these cases, consider the repair to be an investment in a better mutual future.

Give It Time

Recognizing a mismatch and repairing it requires emotional and mental energy—and takes time. “When people feel threatened, they can’t listen to you,” Gold explains, “so you need enough time for the sense of threat to subside before your social engagement system can come online and you can actually listen to another person.” Plan for a tough conversation by allotting enough time for the other person to hear the hard news and recover sufficiently to be able to start thinking again. Or else reopen the conversation later, once the person has recovered a sense of safety.

Similarly, when you get an email that triggers your anger or reactivity, take time to cool off and recover your own sense of safety before planning your response. You can begin the repair process by appreciating that the writer has a different perspective from yours and that your own perceptions might be wrong—so your strong reaction may be out of proportion and unnecessary.

Apply these lessons from babies’ experience of mismatch and repair to help you identify opportunities for recovery and reconnection in your work relationships. This practice will foster greater growth and the creativity you need to make your organization as successful as your relationships.

Onward and upward—

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