True relationships & the myth of ‘good’ and ‘bad’

Think of the colleagues you have meaningful relationships with. There may be quite a few of them. The workplace can be such a beautiful place to find belonging and friendships.

Also, relating well to each other helps us be more effective in what we do. Gallup reports that only two out of ten U.S. employees have a best friend at work. By moving this ratio to six in 10, organizations could reduce safety incidents by 36%; increase customer engagement by 7% and profits by 12%. It pays to have friends at work.

By the same token people feel drained by their work relationships: pressure, unmet expectations, criticism, and disrespect are some of the unpleasant byproducts of working side by side with other humans. Sometimes it gets so bad, you wish you never had to see this colleague or that client again!

Do you think you’ll ever like everyone you work with? Probably not. Yet, working with others you have to be in a relationship with them. How can you make the most of your working relationships and cultivate ones you cherish, ones you may want to keep after your formal work relationship has ended?

Relationships, like everything else in nature, grow. Relationships evolve and go through stages. I have noticed four of them. Not surprisingly, these stages mirror how our relationship with the first people we ever meet, our parents, can mature over time.

  • Stage 1: Dependent – we rely on the other for our survival and sense of belonging. As we grow, we may experience the limitations of our dependence: we may compromise our authenticity and freedom to avoid rejection.
  • Stage 2: Independent – we learn to rely on ourselves for our survival and engage others primarily to get other needs met. Others are a means to our ends. If they don’t support our needs, we may see them as obstacles. As we mature, we may be put off by the coldness and sense of separateness that this way of relating can bring about.
  • Stage 3: Interdependent – we learn to rely on our bonds with others to nourish us, to help us grow into our greatness, and to carry us through the difficult times. And we offer the same to others in our close relationships. At some point, however, we may start to feel limited by this way of relating as we yearn to contribute more deeply to others outside of our immediate circle;
  • Stage 4: Generative – our relationship has become the third entity, like the home we live in, that exists, also when we are not actively paying attention to it. Our home doesn’t only nourish ourselves, but also others in our community. Our relationship benefits other people we relate to.

Take a look at your most important relationships at work. What stage are they in? And what possibilities do you see for you and the relationship to mature to the next stage of maturity?

When relationships are healthy, they may not need to go through the first stage. They organically mature towards the Generative stage. Then it may feel like we are with lifelong friends. There is a sense of mutual recognition. We inspire each other to be our best, to grow more and more into our potential. Spending time together or simply thinking of the other helps us feel taller on the inside. And feeling taller on the inside, we are compelled to contribute to others.

Not too many relationships reach this level of maturity. I believe this is in part because we hold onto erroneous beliefs about ourselves and our relationships. The core of which is the myth that relationships are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When we give energy to this belief, which is only a projection of the mind, we tend to cling to our ‘good’ relationships and run away from the ‘bad’ ones to try to protect ourselves, never giving ourselves the time to grow through our experiences together and let ourselves and our relationships mature organically. What if we looked at our relationships differently? What if all relationships were experiences for our growth? Then how would we look at our relationships? Would we still try to put as much effort in perfecting and holding onto the ‘good’ ones and judging and being scared of the ‘bad’ ones? What would it be like to look at all our relationships with wiser, more patient and more compassionate eyes?

This doesn’t mean we stay in toxic relationships. We may still decide to spend more time in healthier relationships and leave less healthy ones. At the same time, we wouldn’t run as fast from people and relationships that don’t fit our projection of what a ‘good’ relationship looks like. Instead, we’d look at our relationship challenges and ask ourselves: what can I learn from this? How can I bring more of my true self into this relationship? In what ways have I not been as honest and caring as I’d like to be? What stories have I created about me and this person that don’t serve anymore? Which beliefs am I ready to let go of?

With the eyes of growth, we may see a Dependent relationship simply as an opportunity to learn about setting healthy boundaries. We may see an Independent relationship as a school to learn about the possibilities for vulnerability and opening the heart a bit more. And we may look at an Interdependent relationship as a chance to reflect on how we can contribute together more meaningfully to the people around us. With the eyes of growth, all of life becomes a university to help us mature into our wholeness, our wisdom, and love.

As we look at our relationships with the gentle eyes of learning, we may notice some erroneous beliefs that keep us stuck at each stage. I have written below an example limiting belief for each stage, a possible underlying fear, and the implications of giving into these beliefs and fears for our life and leadership. I have also suggested a turnaround for these false beliefs. Contemplating these turnarounds may help you grow past some of the beliefs and fears that may hold you and your relationships back.

Relationship Stage Limiting Belief
Underlying Fear
Possible Implications
Turnaround Reminder for Growth
Stage 1: Dependent I need you to be secure / You control me.

  • Fear of abandonment;
  • Sense of insecurity, obsession with the other;
    • Pleasing, manipulation & control to keep the other;
  • Blame;
  • Putting self or other on a pedestal;
  • Lack of trust, inauthenticity.
My security is within me.
Stage 2: Independent I need to be in control / I control you.

  • Fear of losing control;
  • Anxiety, perfectionism, micro-management;
  • Rigidity, lack of learning, stagnation;
  • Isolation, siloes;
  • Judging others and things as good or bad for me;
Thankfully, I don’t control anything. I find real safety by opening my heart to life more and more.
Stage 3: Interdependent I need you to change to fit my needs / We control me.

  • Fear of the unknown;
  • Anxiety, pressure
  • Manipulation, conditional care,
  • Getting lost in one relationship, losing perspective;
  • Judging others for not complying.
I appreciate giving to and receiving from you.
Stage 4: Generative I need us to be special and important / We control others.

  • Fear of being irrelevant;
  • Arrogance, smugness, self-importance;
  • Blindness to blind spots;
  • Projecting own needs and preferences onto others;
  • Evangelizing and presenting as silver bullet solution.
I see what is needed and do it.

You may notice that your relationships don’t fit 100% into one stage or another. Relationships are complex. I think of a colleague of mine who I admire and appreciate. I feel we are totally ourselves with each other, we appreciate each other for who we are and what we bring to each other, and we enjoy serving clients together. At the same time, I still try to micro-manage him, trying to make him the same kind of coach I am.

Plus, at times, I want him to acknowledge me when he doesn’t. Reflecting on our relationship, I’d say we experience the strengths of the Interdependent and Generative stages. And I have some growing to do to address the challenges from earlier stages, Dependent, Independent and Interdependent. I need to learn to let go of my fears of abandonment, the unknown and losing control.

I see now that I can tame these fears by practicing behaviors that come from a more authentic, values-based place: opening my heart, trusting myself rather than waiting for validation, and making clear requests while staying detached from his responses. I practice staying in my business and not butting into his.

What can we do to help our relationships mature? It starts with us seeing each relationship as an opportunity for our growth. As we use each relationship to mature ourselves, letting go of our self-made limiting beliefs and fears, our relationships mature also. With the eyes of growth, we discover the gifts of learning that each relationship can bring us. Finding these gifts requires us to be radically honest with ourselves.

What are the stories I am holding onto about myself and the other person that prevent us from connecting organically? To what extent do I still believe that the other person will make me happy? On a scale from 1-10, how much do I believe that I am not good enough to be treated with respect? How much do I believe that I control the relationship? How am I trying to control me by denying who I really am? How am I trying to control them? How am I controlled by them? How do we together try to control others?

A great relationship starts with a great relationship with our selves. The more we free ourselves from limiting beliefs, the more open we become to experience a natural flow, a sense of presence in ourselves. We can call this presence our authentic self. Grounded in our own authentic self, our authentic presence, we get to recognize and enjoy this authentic presence in others. This presence-based flow is not reserved for a few people closest to us.

This flow is available to experience with everyone we meet. We tap into this flow, the more we let go of our limiting beliefs. Then our authentic presence comes to the foreground and we start recognizing that presence in everyone we meet. Then we start to see the world, including ourselves, with the kind eyes of evolution – seeing how everyone, including ourselves, is learning to be themselves, learning to connect more and more to the authentic flow that connects all of us.

It’s one way to lead from a place of LOVE – Letting Others-including-ourselves, Voluntarily Evolve.

Hylke Faber serves as a leadership coach and facilitator and leads the coaching organizations, Constancee and the Growth Leaders Network. His first book, Taming Your Crocodiles: Unlearn Fear & Become a True Leader, was released in May 2018 and was soon selected as one of Bloomberg’s 10 Best Books on Leadership in 2018. Through his ongoing collaboration between Constancee and Columbia Business School Executive Education, Taming Your Crocodiles has become the curriculum cornerstone for Hylke’s sought-after online learning series, Leader as Coach.