“I feel hurt because this team member is not grateful for everything I have done for them.”
“I struggle setting boundaries with the employees I have a strong relationship with.”
“I want to negotiate more money without harming my relationship with my employer.”
“I want to tell them I changed my mind about accepting the job offer without damaging the relationship.”
I have heard all of the above in my coaching sessions in the last two weeks alone. And I had a breakthrough. There are no business and personal relationships. All relationships are personal.
What does this mean? Our work relationships are governed by a hidden social contract on top of any business contract.
Our expectations from each other often go above and beyond the transactional piece.
We are programmed for connection. We get oxytocin hits in response to social contact.
Additionally, we are judging machines. Since the beginning of time, we have categorized people into friends and foes. It was a matter of survival and we do the same at work.
That explains it
Once I had this breakthrough, it was like I got new glasses. I saw many of my past experiences in a new light. Things I did not understand at the time started making sense.
I understood why that manager withheld my stock options when he found out I was applying for another internal role in the company. I understood why that client never talked to me again after I negotiated our contract renewal. I understood why some disappointments from colleagues hurt me so much.
We are irrational, emotional humans. We want to feel loved and accepted by our tribe, and when we don’t, it hurts. And when we are heart, we often fight or flight.
It can be lovely to have strong personal relationships in the office. Social connections at work foster a sense of purpose and well-being, increase employee retention and engagement, reduce burnout, spark innovation, and improve employee and organizational performance.
Work feels more fun. More opportunities come your way. People are more motivated to support you. And they can more easily forgive your mistakes.
Until things go wrong.
The business and the social contract
Relationships are hard enough without the added complexity of business. 50% of marriages fail, many people are estranged from their parents or siblings, and we have all fought with a friend.
Relationships at work are even more complex as the rules of the game are not clear.
The expectation in an adult personal relationship is a fair give-and-take and the pursuit of mutual benefit.
The expectation in business is the maximization of profit and the disregard of fairness in favour of demand and supply rules.
What happens when there is a conflict between our business interest and the other person’s interest?
The examples are countless: You may need to fire someone, not give them a raise or promotion, create a new layer above them, renegotiate or break a contract, ask for a raise, leave a job, change your mind about accepting an offer, and so on.
We can defend our business interests and accept the risk of harming the relationship.
Or, we might decide to take a short-term hit to protect the relationship long-term.
How possible is it that you will harm your relationship if you make a business decision that is disappointing to the other person? Well, close to 60% of people did not maintain a relationship with a former manager who made a disappointing decision about their career or compensation, according to this poll I ran on LinkedIn.
The relationship might survive the disappointing decision, but it is equally possible that it won’t.
The stronger the personal relationship is, the more betrayed the other person might feel if we play the business game instead of the social one.
What to do when the social contract and business interest are at odds
We might try to explain that it is not personal; it is just business. This will rarely work because it is not true for the other person. It is personal. There was a hidden social contract that we are probably breaking.
When individuals experience social pain in the workplace, the activated brain region is the same as if they had experienced physical pain.
As much as the other party can rationally understand where we are coming from, they can still feel hurt or angry.
That does not mean that we should not make decisions based on business interest. But, we need to be aware of the potential damage to the relationship and think whether that risk is worth it long-term.
For example, the client who ghosted me after I hurt his feelings by negotiating the renewal of the contract has moved to a fantastic tech company. I would love to have them as a client. My short-term thinking produced a loss for me in the long term.
I was perfectly justified from a business perspective to renegotiate. Other clients were paying me more. But, as much as I try to rationalize it, the fact is that the client was hurt enough to never talk to me again.
When you prioritize your business interest to the relationship, do it with your eyes wide open. Don’t expect that people will react rationally. Many times they won’t.
When they express their pain, disappointment, or anger, hold space instead of trying to reason with them. Yes, it is business, but it is also personal.
People have expectations beyond the pure transactional and economic. When these expectations are not met, it might hurt like hell.
Feeling hurt or betrayed
What if you are on the receiving end of the disappointment? What if you feel hurt or betrayed because your colleague put their business interest ahead of you and your relationship?
This does not mean you need to close your heart to protect yourself from pain. Becoming a cynic is not the answer.
Accept the pain. It will go away eventually. And then you will be able to see you have done it too in the past – honoured your business interest instead of the social contract.
Write down all the opportunities that came your way because of those strong relationships you build at work. Opening your heart at work pays off. As much as it hurts now, your balance sheet will be positive in the long run.
We will experience conflict between our business interest and our hidden social contracts at work. When we do, we need to be aware of the relationship risks and budget for potential intense emotional reactions should we prioritize the business interest. Then, we can decide the right course of action taking a long term view.
Also, if you tend to make friends at work, you will experience innumerable benefits. You also risk of getting your heart broken as you have subconscious expectations way above the business contract. That is OK. It is usually a risk worth taking.