The Primacy of Relationships

Graduating from Cal in 2013, I fell headfirst into the nonprofit consulting world like Alice tumbled down the rabbit hole. Thankfully, I felt confirmation that God was the one who gave me the gentle push in the first place. Yet as a newly minted business professional and a Christian young adult, my spirit longed to find business mindsets congruent with the truths of the Gospel. And, like a well-trained Berkeley student, my criticism of the ‘powers that be’ revealed the opposite. Simply put: there are a lot of business mindsets that do not fit nicely into my conceptions of Christianity. Especially disconcerting are those mindsets that do not honor one’s God-given potential or full-personhood.

One such problematic mindset that plays out in both company hiring practice and subsequent employee treatment is the belief that “form follows function.” In essence, the individual’s value is seen as the sum total of his/her evaluated skills and titles, while value for that person’s identity and relationship hinges on these skills and titles. Firstly, this means that when looking at a resume, confirming a person can perform the right ‘function’ means they are a suitable candidate for the offer. Once the employee is hired, their work “function” largely dictates the “form” of identity they can be appreciated for and the type of relationship they get to have with others around them. Can you be the right cog in the machine?

Internally, companies set up organizational charts with clearly delineated roles: neatly distinguishing the C-suite executives from management and the frontline staff. Each level has clear boundaries in relationship and responsibility based upon skillset, personal investment, and vision. And that makes sense in a lot of ways for division of labor1. But at the end of the day there is still a significant problem that lies in pigeonholing people into set roles and categories. You may resort to interacting with them based largely on their company “function.”2 Adhering to strict social hierarchy usually involves learning an array of professional etiquette and procedure that rarely encourages professional development outright. While it may seem easier or more convenient to describe someone and relate to them based on their role, that approach doesn’t uncover the depth of their work potential. Even more troublesome–it doesn’t honor their God-given personhood!

At my own firm I’ve experienced coworkers who chose not to relate to me as a person outside a work context. Some colleagues I’ve known for months but found it difficult to ever really know what makes them tick. Unfortunately I’ve also seen this particular pitfall show up time and again for my clients’ employees–many of them still scratching their heads at how to achieve greater connection, transparency, and partnership with their management.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has published studies on company relationships, and found that employees who are not holistically connected to their coworkers and superiors struggle staying motivated and become relationally deprived. Furthermore it has found that “community solidarity comes from allowing the whole person to surface, which means going beyond superficial conformity to know what else people care about.” HBR encourages employers to allow their employees to “bring outside interests to work” and to “give them frequent opportunities to meet people across the organization to help them get to know one another more deeply.3Ultimately when close ties form between coworkers it “boosts employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage fully in their work.”4

Through the lens of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments we see a God who cares deeply about relationship in the holy work of building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

In the Gospels we see that Jesus chose a tax collector, fishermen, and a religious insurrectionist to be His disciples.

He broke bread with them.

He laughed with them.

He cried with them.

He conversed with them about their hopes, dreams, fears, and faith—embracing their full personhood. He looked at their hearts and saw their potential to rise to the occasion of kingdom building.

Wasn’t Jesus revolutionary in this? It truly is as Paul tells the Corinthians: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”5 Before proving their worthiness, Jesus drew near to His disciples. He prayed with them, fellowshipped with them, and shared life with them. They came to see what He was about, and out of their relationship cultivated trust, confidence, and interdependence. Ultimately over the course of three years they banded together to call forth the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thank God that He sees who we really are though and still chooses to use us. He doesn’t always call the most qualified people to offices of great power and responsibility. Joseph, Moses, and King David’s origin stories showcase this reality. Their calls to leadership are reflective of the primacy of their relationship with and faith in God rather than a reward they received by amassing great personal influence or achievement. King David is a perfect test case. Even though he committed numerous high-profile sins in his lifetime, God consistently called him a “man after his own heart” because of his repentance and desire to turn back to God’s righteous standard of living.6 Truly “the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”7

As Christians we can’t forget to prophetically see and believe more for people than they might be able to currently see or believe is possible for themselves.8 We do this because we have a great God who saw our value and demonstrated His love for us in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”9 and brought us out from darkness into His marvelous light. So in the same vein “we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ too merely from a human point of view, [but] how differently we know him now!”10

God’s kingdom highlights the primacy of relationship. Whereas a corporate empire can dehumanize and deprive people of true relationship by subscribing to “form following function,” God’s Kingdom practices “function following form.” It knits sons and daughters into families where they gain heaven’s eyes for one another—learning to recognize each other’s “form” from their co-belovedness in Christ before regarding one another as employees fulfilling certain “functions.”

I advocate that you start practicing this truth today by loving your fellow students well. You can begin by honoring others’ God-given potential and personhood through appreciating their character, dreams, and passion. Buy each other coffee and listen to each other’s stories. Exhort one another to creatively express yourselves and ask the Lord to reveal how the person in front of you is fearfully and wonderfully made. If you let the Spirit empower you on this track it could translate into you influencing the company culture you inhabit after graduation by bringing in Kingdom principles. People will notice the difference and be drawn to it. Because deep down inside, something inside them knows they were created to experience a love like that.

Footnotes

1) Division of labor is a necessary part of professional role distinction. I’m not advocating an employer should always choose a job applicant for an investment-banking analyst position who doesn’t have proficiency in Excel. But I’ve heard plenty of success stories of companies choosing an unlikely candidate who showed promise and raw talent over someone who could “check all the boxes” for necessary skillsets. Without a business background I got into business consulting thanks to the raw potential my boss saw in me during the interview process.
2) I readily acknowledge that startups regularly break the “form follows function” rule all the time. Good for them!  But not everyone can join a startup so I’m speaking specifically about established business careers in fields like consulting, banking, private equity, big tech, and whatever others I’m missing etc.
3) Kanter, Rosabeth Moss.  “Three Things that Actually Motivate Employees,” ees,” Harvard Business Review, October 23, 2013,https://hbr.org/2013/10/three-things-that-actually-motivate-employees/.
4) Riordan, Christine M.  “We all Need Friends at Work,” Harvard Business Review, July 3, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/07/we-all-need-friends-at-work/.
5) 1 Cor. 1:27 NIV
6) 1 Sam. 13:14 NIV
7) 1 Sam. 16:17 NIV
8) Seeing more for people than they can see for themselves can look really practical. For instance, instead of firing an employee who is becoming depressed while at work because his “form” isn’t following his “function,” reaching out to help support the employee get help can set an important precedent for the culture of the company. Personally supporting the one who can improve morale for the many, providing them with the security to know they are not just expendable cogs that must always perform to standards for fear of being fired. Faith builds culture. LinkedIn and Google are great at this.
8) 1 Sam. 13:14 NIV
9) Rom. 5:8 NIV
10) 2  Cor. 5:16 NLT

 

John Knox studied Psychology at Berkeley and since graduation has both served as the advisor for Unity in Christ (UiC) and worked in consulting. He loves reading, philosophizing, and calling out the potential in all God’s kids over Sliver pizza and Reed’s ginger beer.

 

Image: Detail from Hole in my chest (3 of 3) by Madeleine Witt – The Yale Logos, Fall 2013.

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