Relationships: Independence, Interdependence, & Intimacy

With significant others, in friendships, and with colleagues, quality-of-relationship is a vitally important factor. Each person has needs to feel known and respected in their individuality. We also need to learn how to live and work together in ways that produce a practiced ease. And to deepen and sustain our connections over time, we must achieve a level of relational intimacy.  

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Psycho-Social Dynamics

This all implies needs to see one another in our independence as persons, in our interdependencies, and in our capacities for relational intimacy.  

  • Independence. Being respected, heard, and understood as a person produces feelings that “I am seen and valued as a unique individual” – it yields a sense of dignity.

  • Interdependence. Learning how to be there for one another, to collaborate with one another, helps us experience a true state of “we-ness” – it yields a sense of solidarity.

  • Intimacy. Growing openness, trust, and emotional safety allow us to reveal our vulnerabilities, to support and encourage one another – it yields an abiding sense of mutual concern. 

There is a stage-like progression to how these dimensions of relationship evolve. First, we must feel known as an “I” or subjective center of action, and as a “me” whose identity is achieved through action. A “we-ness” then emerges from our practiced ways of being, acting, and interacting, which produces a shared sense of power, recognition, and rewards over time. And from our joint action, deeper levels of trust grow to make many if not all our feelings discussable.  

Relationships and the psycho-social dynamics through which they develop are situated in a social-historical context. It’s more than a mere stage upon which we act out our lives. It includes frameworks of value and meaning in terms of which we orient ourselves. They cue our behavior and remind us that we are not alone. There exist common normative expectations that govern us as people.    

Moral Frameworks

The sense of dignity that accompanies our experience of being recognized and valued as a unique person singles us out. Our intrinsic worth and independent standing as a free moral agent are affirmed. This standing indicates that we’re entitled to make choices, but we also bear responsibility to keep our commitments. Implied in this felt independence is a sense of relatedness. None of us is intended to be totally independent and self-reliant. We’re social beings. 

Our identities are grounded in relatedness to frameworks of meaning and value that are always already there: One is the awareness that we are of a kind, a natural embodied species, each of us being one among other fellow human beings, sentient and vulnerable, with common needs to thrive, to belong, to be esteemed and cared for by others. A second kind of framework is that of moral meaning, which defines standards of virtue – what is good, proper and right.  

There are other frameworks too, social-economic structures that define roles, norms, and cultural practices that guide patterns of interaction and exchange in everyday life. Thus, our choices and pursuits in role-taking, at work and in our personal lives, also make claims on us. And the happiest among us are those who find ways to reconcile the claims of the moral and non-moral frameworks of meaning and value that define our world. In the best case, we do so in ways that feel authentic. 

But what about the times when we feel stuck, unable to sort all this out? Whether the issues be related to life at work or life at home, their pervasive impacts imply needs for holistic development. It goes to who we are and what we want to be as a person. 

Holistic Means Personal

We cannot entrust this kind of development to merely psychologically-based methods. For at its core, it calls for more than raising consciousness; it also requires awakening one’s moral sense. Nor can it be relegated to the tutelage of a preacher or teacher. In a dialogical style of engagement, the person must encounter her direct experience (affective, cognitive, practical, and social) and its resonance. She must speak its meaning with attunement to her moral sense.   

This provides the “I” with a holding space in which external frameworks of meaning and value, her inner voice of subjective experience, and her moral intuitions of what seems good, right, and proper co-mingle. It’s here, then, in this intimate dialogue, that a person is able to rediscover the truth of her experience – her freedom and her responsibilities. She’s able to reconcile her moral and non-moral aspirations with a grounded appraisal of what she owes to others.  

It does not happen all at once. Progress in personal development is achieved incrementally. And as her clarified sense of self and her gains in moral and emotional freedom register with greater and greater force, she takes this state of well-being into all her relationships. It often causes other to notice a difference, a difference in her and difference in being with her, a positive difference that spawns deeper levels of interdependence and intimacy.

Trust: A Fragile Thing

“I thought I knew him. Wow, was I disappointed!” If you were the him to whom this person’s thoughts and feelings were directed, how would you feel? Not good, right? But how did it come to this? Where did things break down? 

Kinds of Trust

Trust is what’s called a “thick” concept in moral philosophy and ethics[1]. It’s multilayered and is known first through feeling. Only later, upon patient reflection, is it articulated with adequacy in words. And even then, the description is really more a means of evoking something of the original felt sense, which gives it moral weight and richness of meaning.   

By contrast other terms in moral philosophy, such as truth, justice, and right and wrong, are “thin.” Their meaning is more univocal, it registers more clearly, without ambiguity and needs for elaboration. It may seem rationally clear and crisp by comparison. Achieving a clear sense of words like trust requires more effort. It’s descriptive and evaluative meaning is more complex. 

So, let’s try to unpack a bit of its thick meaning. I will do so first by considering the objects of our trust:

  1. We want to trust the integrity of others to keep a confidence, to act with respect and concern for our welfare – it’s something we want to believe, have faith in, and be assured of.

  2. We want to trust the competence of others to do what they’ve promised to do and what we expect them to do – it’s something we look for in their actions.

  3. We want to trust the veracity of others to be honest and truthful in their communications and dealings with us and for us.

  4. We want to trust the fidelity of others, the abiding qualities that indicate they are there for us in good times and bad, always knowing they have our back.

  5. We want to trust the sensitivity of others, knowing that we can openly express vulnerabilities freely with a sense of emotional safety.  

Across all these modes of trust, what’s essential is the wanting and felt strength of the relationship, the assurance that our reliance upon others to act with integrity, competence, veracity, fidelity, and sensitivity is warranted. This is what people mean when they say that they trust someone implicitly. Initially, expectations may have been communicated explicitly. Over time, trust grows and becomes warranted, and then it becomes implicit.  

How Trust is Broken & Restored

Trust can be broken by a primary moral failure. But it can also be broken by means of a more insidious process of deteriorating communications, which we might call a secondary breach of trust. While the primary failure may be driven by fear, self-interest, or some other motivation, it is a conscious act of compromise. The secondary breach, on the other hand, can happen without deliberate moral intent.  

We can simply become worn down, by stress, strain, and exhaustion, or by other major life events, which interfere with our conscious awareness of commitments and moral consequences. We may neglect our duties of care, our communications with colleagues, friends, and significant others. We may simply lose track of commitments. But they still may register as breaches of trust with others.  

In any case, communication – acknowledging what’s happened, apologizing, explaining our actions – is important. To go silent is to only make things worse, to convey no regret. Regaining trust is always best done through actions. It’s a good time to under-promise and over-deliver. Most people are forgiving. Repairing relationships and restoring trust is foundational to our capacities to sustain trust over time.

[1] For a full-length discussion see “Thick Ethical Concepts” (2016) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thick-ethical-concepts/.

Authenticity: More Than Individuality  

In the West, we relish the ideal of independence and individuality. And in the leadership literature authenticity is praised as a virtue that distinguishes the most mature and effective leaders. Perhaps that’s true. In any case, I believe authenticity is a personal virtue and a form of moral maturity. I also believe that it derives its moral value and weight from forces beyond the individual.  

A Philosophical Summary of Authenticity

Authenticity became a prominent theme in philosophy in the 17th century. At that time individuality and personhood became conceptualized in distinctively secular terms, i.e., the person as “rational economic man” and as a free moral agent. Later, in the 18th and 19th century, romantic ideals of individuality placed a premium on the role of free, creative expression as a means of realizing authenticity. It was thought that there is a unique, substantive self within each us that must be found and expressed. 

Alienation was defined in terms of how it signified a barrier to expressing one’s true self. It might stem from the imposition of social customs and roles (Rousseau), from subordinating ourselves to the moral imperatives of religion (Nietzsche), or from the oppressive structures of industrial management (Marx) or bureaucracy (Weber). Then, in the 20th century, existential theory placed the burden of authenticity and alienation solely on our shoulders as individuals:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”  Jean-Paul Sartre

A Psychological-Philosophical Version of Authenticity

We are born into a world, in a place, at a time, within an historical and cultural context, not to mention a particular family. Self-identity and individuation begin there. We form bonds of attachment and loyalty to a community and to moral values and beliefs that give us bearings. In the best case, our parents, teachers, and significant others affirm us as our interests take shape. Our identity evolves through our actions (as Sartre suggests), but it’s also situated in a context of historically constituted values.  

Out of this, a person is born and continues to evolve. We struggle with bringing our developing self into contact with a surrounding environment and world. We enter new social spaces with boundary rules of some kind: “How much of myself can I comfortably reveal? Must I be vigilant for signs of threat, or can I afford to generally trust others?” This process continues in ever-expanding social spaces. We inevitably experience situations in role-taking where we are daunted by what is demanded of us. 

In those moments of challenge, we experience self-doubt, pull back, suppress expression, adopt a more cautious style. These “defensive operations” are intended to protect us, but they also cloak us, conceal our experience from others. We feel alienated from the expressive, congruent flow of our agency as it is usually expressed in moments of confidence and with authenticity. What are others to think? Surely, they can see or sense this front too. 

Losing and Regaining Authenticity

So, what is it that we mean when we speak of authenticity? How is it gained and lost? These are questions I’d like to briefly consider. 

Authenticity is being who we are. Not only the ideal version of self we aspire to be, but also the actual and struggling self. And such authentic presence and behavior is not without breaks, retreats. But even as we encounter daunting challenges, with practice, we can become able to shorten the breaks and retreats, the moments of quiet pause. Moreover, we can become more at ease in making the felt vulnerability of these moments themselves visible.  

Regaining authenticity can sometimes be more difficult. When we’ve lost our way for long, perhaps adopting defenses (denial, minimization, blaming, etc.), the way back can seem even more difficult. By now, we may have lost faith in our ability to be who we need to be in order to fulfill our duties. Shoulds, not coulds, dominate our thinking. This is when we must remember that we are not fully self-sufficient. None of us is. We must reconnect to something larger – to other people? Yes, but more. 

We must at this point reconnect with our humanity, our nature as human beings, our limitations, our values and needs to rediscover hope and inspiration. We must reconnect with our creatureliness, our needs for love, and our capacity to engage humbly in dialogue of what is and what could be. We’ve never done it all without an appreciation for our nature, our needs, and the values and resources that provide guidance and support. It’s time for clarifying our aims, goals, and getting on a path forward.

Are You an Emerging Leader?

Emerging Leaders & Emergent Leadership

Emerging leaders are those whose actions and performance suggest they have the capacity to lead, but also have significant potential to take on bigger, more complex and challenging leadership roles. They may be members of the so-called “high-potential” pool, but they’re distinguished by being early-career professionals whose greatest talents include getting things done through others, through relationships. Some members of the pool are prized more for their expert knowledge and individual abilities.  

Emergent leadership, on the other hand, manifests in actions that guide execution through an assertion of initiative. The act of leadership does not stem from formal positional authority or power. In fact, what distinguishes it is often its spontaneity and situational nature. These acts often arise in response to a problem that poses a threat to realizing a shared goal. An individual sees the situation and responds with a solution-focused intent, which generates pro-social effects on colleagues and collaborators. 

How They Interact to Make a Difference

Both are important and contribute to organizational capacity. But it’s the emerging leader whose talent it is to create conditions most conducive to promoting aligned acts of emergent leadership in others. It’s more than a skill, although skills are implied (e.g., strategic mindset, other-awareness, communications). Emerging leaders create a contagion of shared leadership in the initiatives they lead, and it pays off: 

  1. It accelerates team development (forming, storming, norming, and performing) by encouraging and expecting all to exercise initiative. 

  2. It promotes diversity by explicitly welcoming all to contribute in their own ways and offer insights, ideas, and a willingness to work through issues. 

  3. It models an ethic of we, not me, meaning we’re in it together, greater inclusion and openness to the experience, views, and concerns of others. 

  4. It builds genuine alignment on goals, roles, and contributions as an imperative to ensure that actions serve the shared goals of the team. 

  5. It makes everyone accountable for results, providing ample incentive for people to take prudent risks, and make above-and-beyond efforts. 

  6. It thrives on dialogical and conversational interaction, rather than over-relying on hierarchy, which enables more productive and timely action. 

  7. It increases leadership capacity by empowering aligned acts of leadership at all levels and honing the leadership skills of next-generation talent. 

  8. It creates a history of achievement that all can identify with, learn from, and take credit for, and over time this legacy defines the culture.

If these are some of the ways that emergent leaders make a difference, how can you make a point of noticing and encouraging them? No one will exhibit all of the associated behaviors all the time, so how do you further promote skill acquisition? The answers to these questions exceed the scope of this brief article, but there are answers, many of which will be specific to your organization. And they’re worth exploring!

Making Difficult Personnel Decisions

It’s common adage that among the most important decisions in business are who to hire and who to fire. Of course, when we make hiring decisions well, we expect to minimize the need to make firing decisions. But the reality is actually more complicated and personal for the practicing manager and leader. 

Mistakes in Hiring

Doing it well means reckoning with the risks (sources of error) from the beginning. Here are a few of the risk areas, which, when thoughtfully accounted for in your practices, will generate fewer “difficult” decisions.  

  1. Rushing the process. One of the best ways to relieve unnecessary time pressures is to cultivate a discipline of reviewing the adequacy of your resources needs. These reviews, especially when viewed from a systemic perspective, can reveal growing levels of stress, strain, and inefficiency. Recognize, too, that it usually takes more time than you think to recruit, train, and gain efficiency from new hires. New hires usually represent increased demands on current staff in the short-term in order to position the new hires for success in the medium and longer term.

  2. Plan for change. If it’s a new hire, know more specifically what you really need, what you want them to do. No one is 100% on day one, so discriminate between the gaps and learning curves you can realistically accommodate, and those gaps that may be too big to manage at this time. If it’s a performance issue,, recognize what kinds of difficulties (rational, emotional, interpersonal, and practical) are affecting you. Admit them, examine them, and prepare in ways that allay your anxieties and boost your readiness. Denial only takes them underground.    

  3. Check your biases. Whether it’s a new hire or promotion of a rising star, watch out for the “halo effects” – just because they did that well, doesn’t mean they’re ready to do this well. We can also project our own values and tendencies upon others (motivations, attitudes, work ethic) – we may see what we want to see rather than what’s really there. And stereotypes affect us all. In all instances, I suggest that you consult your gut because we feel things frequently before we know them cognitively. But validate your feelings – what they’re telling you, where they come from.

Difficult Feelings

In item #2 above, I recommend that you prepare. That point deserves a bit more attention. Whether the difficulty involves avoiding something that takes us out of our comfort zone (e.g., raising issues explicitly, discussing consequences, or letting someone go) or indulging a bias out of a sense of false urgency, the felt impulse to act or to avoid acting should signal needs for reflection and reckoning.  

Many people suffer some degree of aversion to conflict. This aversion can arouse anxiety and amplify fears, sometimes causing us to exaggerate risks of conflict and to feel overwhelmed with concerns that we won’t be able to cope effectively. Somewhat related, many of us can feel a concern that we’ll hurt or alienate others by being assertive or providing corrective feedback on their behavior. Make you r positive purposes clear in your own mind, then act.

In both instances, we are, as I indicated in item #3 above, wise to listen to our gut, but also to reflect upon the feelings and thoughts that it raises. On the one hand, the pre-reflective awareness of tension or unease we feel with a course of action is usually worth noticing and understanding. On the other hand, the concerns it arouses should also be validated – are they realistic, proportionate, and how might I mitigate them through preparation? 

Conclusion

Personnel decisions feel difficult because they seem momentous, whether as threats or as opportunities. And working our way through them is usually an experience from which we can learn a great deal. It begins with facing our feelings and then reflectively considering them. This can be done in periodic reviews of “how things are going.” But they can also arise as emergent moments. In either case, invoke a reflective pause, take a breath, and involve a trusted other (or others) in the process of calm deliberation. A better choice will follow.