Irrelationship dynamics can stand in the way of opportunity – if you let them!
So you’re at a convention for fledgling entrepreneurs. Among other things, you’re hoping to meet someone who can mentor and support you in the scary new venture that you’re about to get off the ground.
You meet a woman a little older than you who seems savvy and with whom also you feel a good chemistry, both personal and professional. You’re excited because she seems to like your introduction and enjoy hearing your ideas. But apprehensions pour into your head: is her smile real? Is this just business-as-usual for her, or is she genuinely interested in what you’re saying? And—even worse, perhaps—are you going to do what you’ve done who-knows-how-many times before when someone showed interested in what you were doing: back away politely, turn and run?
In 1930, Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents that “(t)he communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love” (p. 101). This suggests that opportunities in either one of these areas are likely to bring up powerful—often conflicted and unresolved—feelings. Do you feel ambivalence about new business relationships? In the case of this possible new mentor, she seems to like you, but is that only because she wants your money? Is that “chemistry” you are feeling? Or, is it wishful thinking? Whatever the case, can you see it through, manage your irrelational responses and stick to the primary purpose of the connection—can you stick the landing?
Perhaps Freud himself has set the stage for understanding the connection between our romantic and our business pursuits. Each forum can kick up old insecurities, triggering old defense mechanisms that then circumvent anxiety brought about when we expose our needs and vulnerabilities (not just to others, but much more clearly to ourselves). And, add to that, both business and romance can quickly challenge our ideas about our self-sufficiency and show us how much we rely on others in pretty much all of our affairs.
But the ambivalence is always there: everybody wants to be liked, but sometimes when people act like they’re interested in us, ironically, we’re not always sure we trust it or even want it. Ambivalence is a state where conflicted emotions—say, wanting and not wanting something or someone with equal intensity—do not cancel each other out. In a business situation, this can be even touchier since our self-esteem can be strongly influenced by how “successful” we and others perceive ourselves to be. And, for better or for worse, being successful can sometimes include, or even depend on, our ability to create something that looks very much like irrelationship with business partners or other business connections. For instance, jumping through the right hoops at the right time, and taking actions to relieve our own anxiety by making others—a boss a supervisor—look better are routines that easily qualify for irrelationship. Not much imagination is needed to understand how this can condition and complicate self-esteem and self-efficacy issues, particularly as we go through the necessary exercise of business networking. Naturally we want to prize and pride ourselves on authenticity (even in the workplace), but…
In romantic relationships, irrelationship manifests as a state of jointly created psychological defenses that protect those within from conscious awareness of the anxieties associated with desire and love: intimacy, empathy, emotional risk and emotional investment. But what does irrelationship look like in the business setting? Can we create an irrelationship with an environment? With a social system? Can our work situation lead to our creating an irrelational “orbit” around our profession, our co-workers, even our clients or customers? And can this prevent our acknowledging the value and importance of mentors, leaders and others in the work setting? Might this then lead us into acting out our conflicting emotions in ways that, while decreasing the anxiety we feel about the risks we are taking professionally, are actually destructive to business opportunities?
Well—newly emerging business relationships like the mentor candidate mentioned above can feel a lot like a new romance—the rush of excitement, fantasizing about “where this might go,” uncertainty about chemistry, old and new insecurities vying for your attention, and finally, reminding yourself to be circumspect while simultaneously fearing missing a big chance. Maybe medicating anxiety with a dose of irrelationship—of cautious distance—isn’t necessarily uncalled-for. Problem is that, at some point, our song-and-dance routine begins to falter as unwanted thoughts and feelings break through. The careful emotional stride we feel we must maintain to stay safe begins to get shaky.
These emotions can also interfere with executive function, leading to impulsive decisions and poor planning and judgment. These distortions can lead to missed opportunities or worse, as well as to a mutual loss of faith between business partners.
Breaking repetitive, self-defeating or destructive patterns in business will feel unusual (i.e., uncomfortable, nerve-wracking, risky, etc.) at first—but it can be done.
So how do you meet such a crisis? You take a deep breath and set aside time to examine your feelings in light of what you already know about your tendency toward irrelationship (it is in irrelationship’s nature to repeat, so you might already know something about what you’re up to). After acknowledging how bad old habits might threaten this new relationship (kicking up ambivalence about learning to rely on others in heathy, reciprocal ways), come up with a game plan for staying open to what this might be without either jumping in, starry-eyed, with both feet; or, turning tail and running away (again) from opportunity. Keep your eye on reactions and behaviors to maintain balance. Meanwhile, rely on colleagues whom you can trustfully use as a sounding board. If, after that, it still sounds and feels all right, take another step. Oh—and don’t forget to enjoy the process. No matter what the outcome, whatever you learn along the way is sure to be worthwhile in another time and place. That’s plenty of reason to keep going and see what happens.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. Standard Edition, XXI, 57-146. London: Hogarth.