Relational thinking is an exciting way to approach business, economics, politics and social organisation, because the idea of starting from relationships is new.
“Humans are social creatures. We live, work, and grow up in social groups. For the vast majority of the last 200,000 years, humans have lived in multigenerational, multifamily groups characterised by a relational environment; the concept of personal space and privacy is relatively new. We feel safest in the presence of familiar and nurturing members of our family and community. These powerful regulating effects of healthy relational interactions on the individual are at the core of relationally based protective mechanisms that help us survive and thrive.” (Ludy-Dobson and Perry, 2010).
We know this. As such, we must fix our eyes on the adults we wish children to become and support the development of rich and continuous relational environments.
What enables people to flourish as they go through life? What we know from decades of research from institutions like Harvard or Cambridge, lessons drawn from tens of thousands of people, and hundreds of studies, and a myriad of the brightest sociologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists in the world, is that relational wealth, not material wealth, is a stronger indicator of happiness throughout our lives, and that loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of premature death.
“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others – people who are socially excluded – find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely” (Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development).
Research shows that having a range of close relationships is beneficial to physical and mental health. It tells us that well-connected people live longer and more productive lives than those who are socially isolated; that they are happier at home and at work; that they experience a greater sense of belonging; and that they both participate more in their communities and require less support from social and health services over time.
Better relationships between people – what we might call relational health – also improve individual and group well-being, self-esteem, motivation and social engagement. In turn, these enable people to overcome disadvantage and achieve better outcomes in a range of areas, including academic attainment and educational achievement more broadly.
So our vision is simple. We aspire to improve society by strengthening the quality of relationships between people, starting with children and families.
Working with relationships over many years in business, public services, public policy and peace building, combined with the insights into relationships that many different academic disciplines afford, has built a rich picture of how organisational and personal relationships are influenced by a multitude of factors.
Organisations can work instrumentally with relationships as a means to an end. Reducing risk, increasing staff retention or productivity, improving the efficiency of supply chains and production, or enhancing customer loyalty and satisfaction are all important and valuable in their own right and have an impact on the bottom line. But the challenges of recognising the relational nature of the world we live in, and of getting relationships right despite their complexity and the many pressures we may be under, raises a much more significant agenda than better management of the organisational relational environment.
Thinking relationally involves reappraising issues, seeing both self and other in a different way, changing goals, reforming institutions and implementing better practice. Seeing the relational dimension of issues, and the importance of relationships, leads to doing things differently. But ultimately it leads to being different. Becoming a relational organisation can involve rethinking purpose, changing culture and reforming structures. Though such transformations may be rewarding, they are also challenging. The challenge is not just for organisations, but for individuals and for societies as well.
Relationships are often conducted under pressure. Lack of time, challenging targets or financial worries can all lead to relationships being neglected, or inadequate consideration given to the impact of actions and decisions on others. New technologies, globalisation of finance, as well as cultural changes, can all open up new relational possibilities but also create a more difficult environment. Some are pessimistic about the future – seeing the decline of social capital and the growing dangers of divorcing the ownership and use of capital from relational responsibilities. How will we build connectedness, when we connect globally to strangers? Will our stories become increasingly fragmented in a world of choice and rootless mobility? Will we only be known within the small and ephemeral enclaves we create? Will only power be respected as inequalities grow? Will the clash of civilisations be internalised within nations, fragmenting common purpose?
Relational distance is in some ways the defining characteristic of the age in which we live. And there are many ways in which it can be overcome. There are also new relational opportunities with many organisations and individuals recognising the vital role of relationships in their effectiveness and wellbeing. New technology brings unprecedented opportunities for Directness, reducing the mediating power of media or political parties and opening up new business opportunities. The Continuity of personal contacts can be sustained through Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones and other media. Multiplex knowledge can be broadened by search engines. Parity is enhanced when a single customer can humble a mighty corporation through a viral complaint. The opportunity and the means to build common purpose with others is increased as it becomes easier to connect to people with shared concerns.
Public policy and organisational change can increase relational distance, or overcome it. Relationships can be assessed, and impacts modelled. Good relational practice can be incentivised. More supportive environments for relationships can be created. But perhaps, above all, that hard-wired human desire for relationship means that we (and those to whom we relate) cannot remain endlessly content with the consequences of our personal and organisational flaws and weaknesses. Improvement is always a journey. For those seeking to improve relationships it is a rich and rewarding journey, with many fellow travellers.