Building strong relationships beyond a close circle of friends has been a challenge for me. It didn’t bother me much in the investment world: working with entrepreneurs looking to raise capital has been a natural ego boost. It’s also set a lower bar for my interpersonal skills, at least compared to what’s required of me in my operational role at Gett, where we scaled from 150 to more than 1,500 people in less than five years. In this post I will share my learnings, challenges and implementation tips related to Relationship Bank — a technique that helped me measure the temperature of my personal and work connections and take them to the next level.
Initially, I’ve considered managing and leading people one of my strengths. Little did I know until a far more experienced leader pointed out my cerebral, rational and fact-based approach can also come across as cold and impersonal. Ouch. I’ve tried a bunch of common sense stuff to improve at relationship building but it just hasn’t produced results I’ve hoped for: regular 1–1 and team meetings, asking for feedback and ways to improve helped to some degree but I felt there’s more to it. I would often find myself wondering — “what is the other person not telling me when I ask them for feedback?”. It’s that feeling when someone tells you “everything is fine” and you can tell by their body language that “EVERYTHING is NOT fine”…
Questions like “How are things working between us?”, “Is there anything I can help you with?”, “What should I do more of, stop or continue doing?” just weren’t leading to an open, direct communication without drama. I wanted to find a way to air out even smallest issues getting in the way of my team’s and my own peak performance. Especially the kind of seemingly “small” and “unimportant” issues I may cause, that tend to make a huge dent in a relationship over time if remain unaddressed.
Here are the main things I’ve learned that helped me understand the problem better
1/ People have different needs and simply doing what seems right to me may not resonate with another person. Sounds obvious when said out loud. I may like receiving gifts, whereas my friend may value quality time the most. The 5 Love Languages is a helpful book and concept to learn in this regard. Despite the romantic title, it seems to apply just as well to all areas of life and it only takes 10 minutes to complete the quiz and learn your languages.
2/ People are less comfortable sharing what is bothering them, especially when safety is lacking. How to create more safety is a topic in and of itself. Point being, it’s rarely possible to get insights by asking standard questions like the ones referenced above.
This is where the Relationship Bank comes into play — a technique that helped me become a better husband, friend, and leader. I’ve initially picked up on the principle of deposits in romantic relationships in His Needs, Her Needs. I don’t know how it works but this sort of knowledge tends to travel across various areas of life. The basic concept is simple — every time I do something in line with another person’s needs, my “deposit” in their bank grows. Say, they are into quality time, then e.g. going out for a dinner and enjoying a deep conversation about life’s meaning can go a long way. However, every time I do something they don’t really care about, the deposit stays the same. Regardless of how much I may think of that next generation Apple phone, if my partner isn’t into the gift language, buying it for them is not going to move the needle and can actually be frustrating since my expectations of wooing them will be unmet. Equally, checking email at romantic or business dinners alike or not buying gifts, when that is actually your partner’s language will take a toll on your emotional deposit in their bank. For a while, this concept remained just that — a concept, until I’ve read the personal development classics The Success Principles. It was there where I have picked up an idea of how to operationalize the usage of the Relationship Bank with two very simple questions I’m going to share next.
To receive and provide more open and actionable feedback — ask the following two questions
First: How would you rate the quality of our collaboration/relationship on a 1–10 scale?
The answer is the size of your deposit in the other person’s bank. Hence the Relationship Bank name.
Second: What would it take for it to be at 10?
The answer to this question will give keys to improving your relationship.
That’s it. Wonder how the above actually works? I can’t know for sure but I’ve shared my best guesses below.
The first question is an ice-breaker. Hardly any relationship is at 10 all the time. Even most non-confrontational of your connections would rarely admit to your perfection, scoring it in the 8–9 friendly zone instead and that is fine. What’s key is when anything less than the top score is aired out, the sky suddenly doesn’t fall, yet a gap is clearly identified. So, to be consistent with the first answer, even your biggest fans would have to share at least some ideas of how things can be better.
This is the crux of the matter. In my experience, it enabled more open and specific feedback. Now repeat this sequence but let your conversation partner ask you the same questions instead. I’ll share some of my implementation experience below.
// I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care. Like any technique or tool — depending on how it’s used it can be helpful or damaging. One key risk is that it can come across cold or mechanical if you are not genuinely interested in improving anything. I’ve also noticed if I’m too casual too fast with applying it, it may seem like I’m not really interested in what the other person has to say. Instead, they may feel like “Max is just applying some tool, he thinks is cool, to make himself feel a better manager or whatever”. The remedy? Before asking any questions, I remind myself why I’m doing it — to improve my relationships. It helps bring up to the surface the authenticity and empathy and avoid the trap of assuming that just because it worked well the first time, I can lower my level of awareness the next time.
// Go first and listen for understanding rather than rebuttal. Most of the time I’d recommend starting by introducing your goal — e.g. that you’d like to build a stronger relationship and ask a few questions to see how you can improve. Tell the other person you’ll offer your perspective as well, but would like to first understand theirs. The idea is to make the conversation feel more about them than you. I have to work hard to keep my attention on what the other person is sharing and NOT jump to explanations and excuses. It was especially difficult when someone on my team told me I wasn’t spending enough time with them on projects they were driving, effectively making them feel unimportant to the team’s success. Of course in my head, I was giving them space and independence! My gut reaction was to jump straight ahead to correct their misinterpretation of my sophisticated managerial intentions! This would have been a huge miss. I found people don’t factor my intentions into the equation, when describing how my actions or inactions made them feel. Those feelings are true and right in their own sake and require no corrective action. Replying right away with “Wait! But I wanted to give you the freedom to operate independently…”, would only devalue what the person has shared with me, show that I’m listening not to understand but to reply, and leave me worse off — not fully comprehending what is that I actually want to do if I want to improve. I will be just stuck in my own head again, already being the greatest thing since sliced bread. Instead, I push myself to ask questions like “Can you tell me more?”, “What specifically about my actions caused it?”, “How else does it affect you or might affect the rest of the team?”, etc.
// Make it your own. Feel free to rephrase the first question to match your specific life situation. It can vary from asking to rate an aspect of your relationship to e.g. a general level of happiness at work. I use the latter to check the temperature of my team on a regular basis and identify issues that may lead to retention risks if unaddressed. I don’t like the answer every time and it has baffled me more than once, but I found it does help identify problems, so I can act before it’s too late. The moment of truth was when someone told me they have already started interviewing outside because of how overworked and undersupported they felt. Shit. Definitely was not my intention and could have been addressed much earlier. Hope we can recover.
// Use it to bring more safety into your relationships. Make it clear checking the balance in your bank is ‘absolutely free’. This can go a long way towards establishing safety, e.g. next time the other person feels like they have fallen out of your favor or they have read something dramatic into an email or a text — encourage them to check in with you and ask what’s their balance in your bank. Takes some time getting used to and your making clear it’s ok by proactively volunteering this info in order for it to work. I tend to write cryptic texts and emails that can come across as snappy or criticizing. I’ve invited several people on my team to check back with me regarding where we actually stand next time they sense a chasm has grown between us. This tip pairs nicely with the next one.
// Distinguish between long and short term for extra color and granularity. A helpful complication, once you’ve gotten comfortable with using this tool, may be to introduce two types of bank accounts, e.g. in hard and soft currencies of your choice. I have a tendency to overcomplicate things but this one can actually be helpful and was suggested by a friend who likes to simplify. Just maybe don’t introduce it the very first time you work this tool. Use the hard currency account to reflect where things stand fundamentally, whereas the soft currency can be used to reflect tactical feedback related to the past week or two. For instance, with my assistant, it’s important for me to stress the amazing job she is doing overall: “I feel we are at 9 fundamentally — I get all the help I need from you in a timely fashion, which is very important to me”. Yet I want to ensure we are learning and improving as a team and even smaller hiccups can be used as an opportunity to get better instead of being sacrificed to the “greater good of perfect relationship”, which isn’t practical anyway. So, I would add something like “In the past few days though, I felt we were more at 6-7, since I’ve asked you to look into the problem we are having now with one of our most important accounts and I haven’t heard back from you since. What happened?”. It helps me keep an eye on the big picture and appreciate people around me but also provide tactical feedback when needed.
// Operationalize it. Ask the two questions frequently. Feel free to make a copy of this spreadsheet if you want to use it with more than a few people and track progress without relying on your memory alone. I do my best to check the balance every 1–2 weeks with key people on my team.
// Don’t freak out when you hear a low score. Yes, it likely means there’s a lot to improve and that you haven’t been there for that person. Luckily for you, it also implies you haven’t botched the emotional safety aspect completely and they trust your intentions. It takes some gut and/or trust to give a “5” right off the bat. On one of the initial occasions I’ve used this tool, I actually got a “5”. We are hovering around 7–9 with this person now and I’m humbled by the faith I’ve been given the first time around.
// Don’t be fooled by the perfect score. Lack of trust, power distance, and other barriers make it more difficult to give critical feedback. If you get a high score and not much feedback, don’t rush to assume there’s nothing to improve, especially when it’s the first time. It happened to me when someone on my team just kept giving me a ‘9’. Yet I could tell by the almost visible distance between us it’s probably more of a ‘6’. It took some probing with more questions and suggestions to create safety and space for sharing. Two of my favorites to get things going are “I know I have a tendency to [critical feedback received from others goes here] and I’m eager to work on it. What do you think? How has it manifested itself in our collaboration?” and the second one — “It seems there’s nothing at all I can do to improve?”.
The openness will grow the more your partner and you become used to working with the Relationship Bank. One of the best implementation examples I have is when a person on my team began to start our 1–1s with it. Before even saying ‘hello’. When it happened for the first time, they fired out with “It’s a ‘6’, man. Last week I really needed your input on a vendor contract and you just weren’t there for me. Besides, when you did give me your comments, I understood we are misaligned on the nature of the engagement with this vendor. Here’s what I need from you…”. This was the time I knew I had to share this tool with the world. There was a part of me that ached from the criticism, of course, but it was dwarfed by the joy of creating a direct and honest way of communicating about issues without assigning blame. It’s not about reaching some perfect score, rather it’s about reflecting the reality of how people feel in their relationship and working to improve it.
To use the analogy of two pilots in a cockpit: this type of safety enables cutting the bullshit and reading whatever dashboards say. Applying critical reasoning required to drive action, instead of worrying about what emotions one may cause by saying “the fuel tank is almost fucking empty, let’s look for a suitable place to land now!”. It is sometimes said to be a key factor in a pilot/co-pilot communication reducing the number of incidents in the air.
Have a safe flight!