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  • Writer's pictureMatt Symes

The Key to Better Relationships With Your Staff

The Lead Yourself First newsletter is a deep dive into what keeps leaders healthy and performing at their peak. Every fourth week, I distill one or more points to help you prioritize self-leadership and personal growth.

Man walking in nature during the early morning hours

The quality of your life comes down to the quality of your relationships. The quality of your relationships comes down to how you show up, what you observe, and how you articulate those observations. 

Enter Gottman and the Magic Ratio

Research by Julie and John Gottman found couples who maintain at least a 5:1 ratio are more likely to have stable, satisfying relationships. Couples below that ratio are more likely to eventually break up.

That’s the Gottman Magic Ratio.

The ratio allows us to build an emotional bank account, nurture the relationships closest to us in a warm and positive way, and build trust. So that when we meet the inevitable critical conversations, we can handle them and even grow from them.

The translation to the work environment is clear.

As a leader, you have between 7 and 10 key relationships that you maintain. You will have to have difficult conversations during that relationship. Conversations where you talk about performance, skill acquisition, growth and development plans - all moments that require what Kim Scott succinctly called Radical Candor.

In order to have those conversations, those in your charge must know that you care deeply. You can’t have those difficult discussions until you’ve first built confidence in those you work with.

That’s why the ratio is pure magic. And a tangible way for you to start building better relationships with those in your charge. 

Here is My Experience:

I'm a hard-driving, type-A leader. I assume most reading this are similar. 

I come with an advanced toolkit for spotting gaps at the strategic and execution levels - I joke that I'm beta-test subject number one for all of my dad's learnings. In my years delivering to audiences, I've honed the power of tone and emphasis. In personality tests, I rank very high on processing speed (this is a bit of a party favour - just because you can process quickly and come to a position does not mean it is the best answer). My time in academia has given me a robust vernacular to articulate that position. 

My father was always keen on saying we don’t have weaknesses. We only have strengths taken to excess. My desire to help teams close gaps and to benefit from their competitive advantages could lead to incredible motivation and game-changing breakthroughs with our clients and be wholly intolerable to be around on a regular basis.  

Understanding the Gottman Magic Ratio has changed my life at home and in the workplace. 

It has improved the quality of my closest and most important relationships.

You see, I always had these passing positive thoughts about people, their actions, interactions, dispositions, aptitudes, and their results. But thinking them and keeping them to yourself is not the same as letting others know you're thinking them.

I know that sentence sounds like common sense. But let me say it again: Your relationships do not benefit from the positive thoughts you keep to yourself.

So long as you’re authentic and specific in your delivery, you cannot overdo this - Research suggests you likely do not compliment people enough.

Why do we hesitate? Why does this seem so hard? Three reasons:


1. You worry too much about the wording. The sentiment matters more than the words, anyway. You don’t need an advanced degree in word-smithing for the compliment to land well. You just need to get it out. 


2. You underestimate how meaningful the words are. Think back on your lifeline - the moments that have mattered. And almost surely, you can parse together a string of compliments that have been so meaningful that they came to define how you saw yourself.

  • In Grade 8, a friend said to me: “Can you please help us stay focused? We try, but we don’t always succeed. When you try, you get great A’s.” His motivation was for us to get a great mark on our project, but that compliment started to craft my own view of myself.

  • A coach once told me he saw me as an offensive defenceman. Before that, I had rarely scored (except for one year I played half a season on the wing). For the rest of my playing days, I was an offensive defenceman who scored regularly. It’s almost like he gave me permission to believe.

  • A history prof, Dr. Ann Condon, once said that I had jumped into the deep end of the pool and came out with the mermaid. She gave me confidence; I could write.

  • Another history professor told me that my writing needed to improve but that I had the ability for critical thought (thanks, Dad) and that would take me places if I managed to hone it - especially with better prose. 

Think back on your life. Who were the people that you respected, who authentically complimented you? How did that change your perspective of yourself? How did that accelerate the trajectory of your own development?

3. You simply haven’t anchored the habit of translating their positive thoughts into compliments. This is the first hurdle to get over. Just do it (and it will have a surprisingly positive impact on how you feel as well). 


And for those worried about performance slipping, with people going soft… All I can say is, “Bees don’t try to convince flies that honey tastes better than shit.”  


Long gone are the days of fear-induced leadership sprinkled with the odd acknowledgment. We all need to feel heard and validated in this world. And it means a great deal when it comes from those you admire. The workplace data is clear: those who feel respected in the workplace “reported 56% better health and well-being, 89% greater enjoyment and satisfaction, 92% greater focus and prioritization, 25% more meaning and significance, and 55% more engagement.” 

When Doug Conant took over at Campbell’s, the company had lost more than half its value, sales were dwindling, morale was low, and the toxic environment was labeled the worst among Fortune 500 companies.

He met with his senior leaders and articulated a humble, civil, and brilliant ten-point pledge. And then backed it up with a series of thank you notes… Every day… and in the end, he sent more than 30,000 of those notes. They became his trademark in the successful transformation of Campbell’s.

Putting This Into Action:

1. Reps will give you confidence and increased competence. Do it more. Be transparent with those you're delivering the compliment to. "I'm really working on noticing and acknowledging the positive more often. I just observed... and I wanted to let you know..." is a perfect way to start. Acknowledging you are working on this does not lessen the impact of the compliment.

2. Measure it! If it is good enough for the #1 coach in the world - Marshall Goldsmith - it is good enough for me. For a period in his life, he measured the number of compliments he gave his wife. Nothing anchors new behaviour like seeing the score in a way you can consistently adjust.

3. Take it to the next level: There are key relationships in your life. Who are they? Do they know how you feel about them? Write them a thank you note. I write 5 a week. They take time. They take focus. They take energy. And it is very worth it! 

Authentic compliments. Acknowledgments of gratitude. Articulation of meaning and significance. They have all come together to act as a forcing function for a healthier relationship with others and myself. They have altered what I’m looking for. And it has all contributed to a healthier, happier, and higher performing environment for me and those in my orbit.


PS - If you want to dive into practical tips for pushing through growth challenges, scaling organizations, and optimizing your process, check out the Racki & Symes podcast.


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