by Bob Lewis

ROT (“Relationships Outlive Transactions”) turned upside down

Apr 20, 2011
IT Leadership

Trying to impress someone almost always backfires, and in multiple directions.

Trying to impress someone almost always backfires, and in multiple directions.

ManagementSpeak: Lessons learned.

Translation: Mistakes we refuse to learn from.

This week’s contributor appears to have learned from past mistakes, and has decided to remain anonymous.

“There’s no one thing I can point to,” my client was quick to point out. “It’s just that on more than one occasion I’ve been pretty sure my CIO wasn’t giving me an entirely straight story.”

“I’m not talking about attempts to persuade me on important strategic issues. I’m talking about puffing up his resume, spinning small achievements to make them look bigger, and downplaying problems instead of describing them accurately. Nothing was an outright falsehood. He didn’t lie outright. He just stretched the truth enough to make me uncomfortable.”

“Now an important issue has come up, he’s making definitive statements about what is and isn’t possible, and I’m not sure I can believe what he’s telling me.”

Welcome to the world of ROT, only now it’s ROT turned upside down.


ROT, you’ll recall, stands for Relationships Outlive Transactions.

ROT is one of the 13 guidelines enshrined in Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology (#5, to be exact). Whenever I’ve written about it, the context has been the collateral damage that can occur whenever an executive is so focused on winning a point that he or she damages relationships in the process.

The accumulating loss of goodwill can devastate an executive’s ability to win the next point, not to mention the point after that.

Winning the individual point is the transaction. It’s a moment in time. Strengthening personal relationships creates enduring strength. Wise leaders focus on this, recognizing that with a strong network of personal relationships, winning individual points when necessary becomes trivially easy. And so long as none of the victories damages these relationships, there’s no long-term loss of personal effectiveness to worry about.

My client’s CIO highlights the same principle when approached from the opposite direction. His “transactions” were his attempts to impress his boss. The relationship didn’t outlive them. Quite the opposite — it didn’t survive them.

Back in the 1960s, B.S. Tuckman researched team dynamics and concluded that high-performance teams have two defining characteristics: trust and alignment. Its members can count on each other while sharing a common purpose.

The smallest teams have two members. A manager and direct report are an example. With trust and alignment they’ll work together smoothly. Damage either one and the relationship becomes more difficult; destroy both and it’s dysfunctional.

My client’s CIO apparently confused impressing someone with relationship-building. If Tuckman is right, it’s a losing tactic. Being impressed with someone might mean you trust their abilities. It has little to do with either trusting their character, and less to do with the two of you being aligned to a common purpose.

And that’s if you succeed, which means you either didn’t stretch the truth or your audience was taken in. If you fail, it means your audience still doesn’t trust your abilities, and now they don’t trust you, either.

When someone tries to impress someone else, they’re attempting to elevate themselves compared to the person they’re trying to impress. Here’s an oddity: It can’t work.

As has been pointed out more than once in this space, a clear indicator of who is leading and who is being led is who looks to whom for approval. When someone is trying to impress you, there are only two possible outcomes, success and failure. If they succeed, you’ll act impressed … you’ll give them approval. Which means they’ve encouraged you to take the first step in being their leader.

Or else, they won’t impress you, after having made it clear they want to. Which means you can infer they want your approval. They’ve subordinated themselves to you.

Their strategy backfired.

And another thing: There’s a big difference between someone being impressed with you and you trying to impress them. For the most part, when someone tries to impress someone else, they’ll only succeed with the chumps.

Which makes any attempt to impress someone else a sign of disrespect.

Last, and most certainly least: When someone tries to impress you, what’s the subject?

Imagine I wanted to learn more about Cloud computing (hey, it could happen). So I ask a guy who’s supposed to be an expert. But instead of just talking about the Cloud in an interesting way (hey, it could happen), he spends his time, and mine, trying to impress me with how brilliant he is.

By trying to impress me he’s changed the subject, from the Cloud … which hypothetically interests me … to himself, which emphatically doesn’t.

The point of all this? No matter how you look at it, trying to impress your boss is a losing proposition, unless your boss is a loser.

I hope you’re impressed.

Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.