When my friend Ethan was transferred to another city we vowed to stay in touch. And we did, primarily with me initiating contact. Over time, the interval between our calls lengthened. I remember thinking with some annoyance, “I’m putting all the energy into our relationship, why doesn’t he call once in a while?” Time passed. I thought about him often and waited for him to connect. We haven’t spoken in over five years.
This is an example of the first law of the physics of relationships, and it relates to inertia: relationships continue moving in the direction they are going until someone does something to change their trajectories.
Relationship inertia is particularly hazardous in work settings. There, power dynamics amplify peoples’ insecurities, inhibiting coworkers from changing the course of their relationships. The most severe symptoms of relationship inertia are mistrust and blame. The longer the symptoms last, the more damaging the outcome.
Exhibit A: Relationship inertia
Carl was an executive coaching client I was helping assimilate into a new company as the vice president of technology. His calm demeanor and empathy were appreciated by his new staff, which had suffered under a more authoritative, difficult boss. He seemed off to a great start.
Eight months later Carl called to tell me he was placed on a ‘performance improvement plan,’ a euphemism for the first step of being fired for poor performance. He told me if he didn’t shape up in 30 days he would be let go. He wasn’t optimistic.
When I asked what happened, Carl discussed two peer level vice presidents from other departments who he said “threw me under a bus.” Carl described how they slighted him and insulted his department at every opportunity. When I asked if their criticisms were at all valid he complained about their impossible demands. When I asked if he discussed his frustration with either of them he said he had not. Instead, he responded by pushing his people harder to meet their deliverables, which didn’t seem to help.
Looking at this drama from outside in, it was easy to negatively judge Carl. He was acting like a victim and wasn’t taking responsibility to face the relationship problem head-on.
Yet when looked at from Carl’s perspective, his not taking initiative to change his relationships had some sort of logic. After all, he was new and could reasonably expect to be cut some slack as he learned the ropes of a new company culture. Perhaps he wasn’t accustomed to playing with sharp-elbowed peers.
The cold reality was that two vice presidents were complaining about him and were probably deriving some benefit from doing so. Thus it was unlikely for them to change without him doing something to break the pattern.
Exhibit B: Law of opposing forces
This leads to the second law of relationship physics: For every relationship action there will be an equal and opposite relationship reaction. In other words, complaining that someone else needs to change (and doing nothing about it) is a waste of time. In Carl’s case, he claimed he was trying to solve his problem by pushing his people to work faster. But his problem was not about a deliverable; it was rooted in his relationships and his unwillingness to change his approach.
Carl seemed bewildered when I suggested it was up to him to shift his tactics if he wanted to keep his job. Instead, he continued to stew in indignation, waiting for something to happen. The standoff continued until Carl’s last day of employment.
What could Carl have done? Well, in his case anything would have been better than nothing. To be effective, he could have had heart-to-heart conversations with his colleagues about why they got off to such a rocky start. He could have listened with compassion to the pressures his colleagues were under. He could have discussed his feelings of betrayal. And he could have taken more responsibility.
This might not have saved his job, but according to the second law it would have had some effect. To do nothing was irresponsible, and led to Carl’s lingering anger, long after he left the company.
Carl is no different than me, and I imagine, no different from many of us. I can think of several relationships I have let languish, or worse, left with some vestige of hard feelings. In these cases I usually blamed the other person. Without intending, Carl taught me to take fuller responsibility for my relationships. I just left a message for Ethan. I will certainly hear from him shortly.