Improving Face-to-Face Relationships

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The challenges of management in the 1980s are enormous, but they are fairly easy to identify. The great difficulties that we face lie not in deciding what our goals should be, but in determining how to achieve them. Our problems in this area are problems of implementation: how can we reach goals that are often perfectly clear but seemingly impossible to attain.

Several explanations of these problems readily come to mind:

  • Large systems have become too complex to be understood.
  • “Bureaucracy” makes it impossible to get anything done.
  • Intergroup hostility paralyzes all constructive effort.
  • Power politics undermine and subvert rational action.
  • Irrationality and human resistance to change defeat even the wisest programs.

All of these explanations are true, but they are also incomplete. Sometimes they are used only as excuses for failure rather than as constructive analyses of our management problems. On the other hand, we have learned something about implementation in the last forty years or so, and what we have learned takes us back to one fundamental principle: societies, organizations, and families are human groups, and the face-to-face relationships among the members of these groups are a basic element of any social action. Whatever else we need in the way of systems, procedures, and mechanisms, the process of social action always starts with face-to-face relationships among people. Face-to-face relationships can be thought of as the glue that holds organizations together, and such relationships are the links in the implementation chain. Therefore, we should take a fresh look at these relationships to see if we can articulate some of the skills which can make them more constructive, and thus enable us to move toward solving some of the pressing problems of the 1980s.

The Elements of Face-to-Face Relationships

What does it take to build, maintain, improve, and, if need be, repair face-to-face relationships? I would like to discuss nine different elements, which are all closely interrelated yet distinct in important ways.



1. See P.R. Lawrence and J.W. Lorsch, Organization and Environment (Boston: Division of Research, Harvard Business School, 1967). 2. See E. Goffman, Interaction Ritual (Chicago: Aldine, 1967). 3. See E. Hall, Beyond Culture (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1977).

4. See: E.H. Schein, Organizational Psychology, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980), chs. 9 and 13;

T.A. Harris, I'm OK — You're OK (New York: Avon, 1967);

E. Polster and M. Polster, Gestalt Therapy Integrated (New York: Bruner/Mazel, 1973).

5. See R.E. Walton, Interpersonal Peacemaking: Confrontations and Third-Party Consultation (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969). 6. See W. Bennis, J. Van Maanen, E.H. Schein, and F.I. Steele, Essays in Interpersonal Dynamics (Homewood, IL: Dorsey, 1979). 7. See D. McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960).

8. See F. Bartolome and P.A.L. Evans, Must Success Cost So Much? (London: Grant Mclntyre, 1980);

E.H. Schein, Career Dynamics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978);

C.B. Derr, ed., Work, Family, and the Career (New York: Praeger, 1980).

9. See B. Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1979);

F. Frank, The Zen of Seeing (New York: Vintage, 1973).

10. See R.E. Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1972). 11. See S. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1977), p. 32.


The author would like to acknowledge the Centre D'Etudes Industrielle, Geneva, Switzerland for its support in writing this paper. This paper is adapted from an address delivered to the 50th Anniversary Convocation of the Sloan Fellows Program, Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 3, 1980.

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