MT Expert - People: Dealing with relationship breakdowns

How can you prevent bad personal relationships undermining the efforts of your senior team?

Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013

Sadly, one of the most frequent issues we uncover as organisation consultants is the breakdown of personal relationships within a top team. I say ‘sadly’ for two reasons. First, because it's an issue that everyone will privately acknowledge has a huge impact on them, yet no-one has the courage to name it, let alone deal with it openly. Second, because it’s usually the issue that is not only preventing the top team from performing effectively, but also stopping the whole organisation from achieving its full potential. As we all know from our private lives, the ripple effect of a relationship breakdown spreads very widely.

When times are tough, we also see that a relationship issue that has previously been tolerated suddenly becomes magnified by the increased stress to achieve results. There may, for example, be two individuals who have never really got along; but when you're making the numbers, it isn’t a problem. Suddenly, when everyone is scrabbling to show that they can still be successful, trust in each other is stretched to the limit - and this is when the dormant issues are brought into the open. Even then, it’s amazing how people will still collude to try and keep the issue hidden, when it can often be the biggest organisational risk facing the business.

In our recent research report, ‘Strategy evolution: adapting to a changing world’, we identified a whole set of ‘covert’ organisational risks that can derail a strategy – and the lack of open and trusting relationships in a top team was often mentioned by our interviewees as something that has to be tackled head-on, in order to have the collective strength to come through the recession. As David Hathorn, chief executive of Mondi plc, told us: 'We can message all we like – it’s how we behave that matters. When things are unravelling around you, more than ever you need your team to hang together'.

So how do you bring difficult relationship issues into the open? How do you also avoid a stand-off where there will be winners and losers, since no-one can afford to lose key talent at a critical time for the business?

One route is to collect evidence from the whole team about what is really going on. You will need to use an impartial ‘critical friend’ or consultant to make sure everyone feels comfortable in telling the truth, with no fear of making ‘career limiting statements’. Listening objectively here is key. You also have to ask what they see as the collective goal or task of the team, and how well-equipped they are to achieve it. In the context of that shared objective, you can then have a more neutral discussion about why negative behaviours within the team are blocking your chances of achieving success, and what the behaviours are that you need to have in place.

Supported by individual coaching conversations, to explore how each team member then needs to shift his or her behaviour in the context of the shared objective, this is an effective way of unblocking the issues and moving on.

However, often the root cause of relationship issues is the lack of self-awareness of different styles and preferences among the individual team members. One way of building the foundations for healthy relationships is to use psychometric  tools.  Myers-Briggs assessments give everyone a simple framework to discuss the impact of personality differences in a neutral language. A more challenging choice could be the Hogan leadership assessment tool, which includes an innovative way of uncovering our personal behaviour ‘derailers’ – these help you to become more aware of the negative impact of our behaviour under pressure. Many of our clients have found this a useful way to have more constructive conversations about their behaviour when working together as a top team.

Whichever route you choose, what’s important is to treat a top team relationship issue as a leadership and business issue that needs to be solved together in the open - and not simply as a personal issue to be discussed behind closed doors.

Virginia Merritt is managing partner at Stanton Marris, a consultancy that specialises in making strategy work through effective leadership, employee engagement and organisation development. By helping organisations make sense of the issues that stop change being sustainable, it enables them to manage the risks associated with strategy development and execution. For more information visit

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