(4-minute read)

“I don’t get it, I thought we were friends! I leave the team, and boom, I’m cut off and no one contacts me anymore.”

Sound familiar?

In working with leaders across organisations, you come across many cases of ‘disappointment’ stemming from relational expectation. This shows itself in various ways and is often painful. Interestingly, this kind of relational disappointment is rarely mutual. Each party often sees the relationship in a different way, with different expectations. Still sound familiar?

About twenty years ago, a kind boss shared a neat way of considering these complex relational dynamics. He told me, ‘Think of ships, Dave. Not every ship at sea does the same thing. Some ships are for cargo. Some for fishing. Some for pleasure. Basically, ships serve different functions.’ Then he said, ‘The same goes for relationships. But there are people who are going to get their ships mixed up. They get on the LeaderSHIP and instantly think they are on the FriendSHIP.’ (Kudos to David W!)

I was about 20, and thought he was he was being weird, but to be honest, it has taken me about 2 decades to see the importance of sorting my own ships out so that I can navigate the seas of life with others. Let me explain some more, starting with a classic example.

Imagine a bright young lady, full of zeal and promise, entering the LeaderSHIP team of a company. Deep down, she has a desire to be in FriendSHIP with the boss. She is expecting lunch and dinner invitations, like some of the other leaders have had; but months later, still no invite. This young leader gets frustrated and begins to engage less with her workplace. She presents fewer ideas at meetings and pulls out of important projects without warning. Her boss sees a decrease in her performance and kindness but hasn’t even considered the relational disappointment an issue, because she brought her into the company onboard the LeaderSHIP and not the FriendSHIP. What the young leader does not realise is that her boss’s FriendSHIP is full and she sees no need to expand it, regardless of a person’s position in their company. Sometime later, the young leader leaves the company, projecting her own pain on the boss as her lack of leadership ability.

What has happened here? This new leader packed her bags and stood at the dock waiting to board FriendSHIP without a ticket. Then, felt the pain of being rejected time and time again as the bosses party boat sailed off into the sunset.

Why is this too common? Why do we find ourselves boarding ships, jumping ships, finding ourselves feeling like hungry and shameful stowaways on certain ships? Why do some leaders find necessary organisational decisions so difficult, such as moving staff on (especially if staff are aboard intimate ship)?

I believe this stems from how we were influenced by three main cultures:
1. Family (home culture)
2. Society (country culture)
3. Religious (faith culture)

What we must be mindful of, and honour in ourselves, is our deep human desire for connection. The desire to be seen, known, heard and wanted is hardwired into us from our very conception. As Curt Thompson says ‘We are born into this world looking for someone looking for us, and we never stop searching.’

There is no shame in wanting to be on board any kind of ship. In fact, we are created for connection and each ship offers a different aspect of connection – and it’s helpful for us to keep a sober view of this.

Unpacking this would warrant a book or a workshop, but suffice to say that if the fruit of frustration is present in you or another, then there will be some kind of cultural roots that are causing pain. Perhaps a good place to start is to consider the ships in your own fleet; examining the expectation you have with each one.

Here are some of the most common ships in our RelationSHIP fleet:

KinSHIP – Family and birth based
FriendSHIP – Interest and pleasure based
PartnerSHIP – Project and team based
LeaderSHIP – Management and governance based
FellowSHIP – Club and Community based
CitizenSHIP – Nationality and origin based

So, the next time you enter a PartnerSHIP around a project (perhaps a work-related), ask yourself, ‘What are my expectations here? If we are sailing the seas of this venture together, am I expecting to become best buddies? Can I do friendliness without the commitment to friends? What if FriendSHIP develops? Do I have room on my FriendSHIP? What if they want to catch up on weekends but I don’t want to?’

Armed with this paradigm, I’ve found talking with safe-others through related frustrations has helped bring clarity to situations. I’m also discovering the bigger value of risking vulnerable conversations with valued others around relational expectations. In short, sorting your ship out is a maturity skill worth working on.

Happy sailing!


Please reach out with your thoughts, questions or comments.