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Even if you can’t carry a tune, you’ll discover strategies that help your work teams make harmonious music together.

  • Outlines the developmental stages through which our interactions typically evolve,

  • Offers specific tools and approaches to help navigate those stages more successfully, and

  • Helps you rehearse what works—based on real social science and practical applications.

The Overture:
An Introduction to the Music Metaphor and Its Themes

  • Your boss. She is an industry leader, but she drives you crazy.

  • Your team leader is your best friend, but there’s no way you can ever figure him out.

  • Your staff works hard but is impossible to manage. It’s like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

  • Your vendors. You love them, but you want to strangle them at times.

  • Your wacko colleagues across the hall. Even their manager can’t motivate them to be more professional and considerate.


If any of these situations sound familiar, you are not alone. Unless we become hermits or lighthouse keepers,[1] all of us have ever-changing relationships at work. Our dealings with others take up much of our time and emotional energy, regardless of how productive or challenging they are. Some make us smile, while others make us gnash our teeth.


Maybe this interaction sounds familiar:


“Hey, George! Do you have a minute? I’d like some advice.”


Juanita hovers in the doorway of George’s office. George is the HR manager of the high-tech company where Juanita is a supervisor.


“Sure, Juanita,” George says, as he sets a stack of files aside to clear his desk. “Come on in. Close the door and have a seat. What’s up?”


Juanita slumps into the chair in front of George. “I have some static with three of the people I work with. I could probably handle one of them, but dealing with all three is a bit overwhelming.”


“Tell me more.” George leans forward. “Who’s driving you nuts?”


 “Well, our new programmer is really nice, but that’s the problem: he’s too nice. People see him as a doormat. He’ll say yes to whatever people ask him to do just to avoid conflict, so he ends up overpromising and underperforming. The others on my team think he’s weak and not smart. They’ve already made nasty nicknames for him and are sure he’ll get fired soon. I think he has potential if they’d just cut him some slack.”


 “Okay. Who else?” George asks.


 “You know our customer service coordinator?”


George nods.


“She’s funny and high energy, but she creates chaos wherever she goes. She’s quite distractable and usually late, so she makes a lot of mistakes. She’s likable, but I can’t trust her to be accurate or to meet deadlines. Some of our customers say she’s charming, but they don’t want to work with her anymore.” Juanita sighs.


George grimaces. “Sounds challenging. And if those two weren’t enough, you said there is a third?”


Juanita sinks a little lower in her chair, like someone was letting the air out of her tires. “Yes, my manager causes me more stress than the other two combined. She’s smart and really knows our department, but she’s super critical and controlling. Her style is ‘no news is good news,’” Juanita says making air quotes. “So I never hear anything positive from her—just what I’m doing wrong. I cringe when I see her walking toward my office, and I brace myself to get interrupted or attacked in meetings.”


George is thoughtful for a moment before responding. “Well, the good news, Juanita, is that you are paying attention. You’ve clearly identified three relationships that need improvement. From the accolades I hear about your team, it seems you’re doing fine with the other folks. So let’s sort out what your options are to help the programmer be more assertive and confident and the customer service coordinator to be more focused and organized. Then let’s look at how you can create more trust and rapport with your boss. I also want to help you recognize what you’re doing well with the rest of your team, so that you can leverage those strengths with these three people. Where do you want to start?”


Juanita’s challenges exemplify how hard it can be to manage relationships effectively at work. It’s not as if we walk into a room and think, “Let’s see, who can I irritate today?” Each of us means well but lacks some of the skills needed to initiate and maintain productive interactions with others. Relationship friction in the workplace is inevitable. Our ability to respond to it productively has a tremendous impact on our success, regardless of the type of job we hold.


Like Juanita and her colleagues, it is difficult to stop placing obstacles in our own path, often repeatedly. People also have trouble taking the insights from books, seminars, and prior experiences and applying them to current frustrations.


At your local library, bookstore, or on your favorite website, take a look at books on workplace communication and relationships. You are likely to find many options with a wide range of titles. You may see topics like these:


  • How to get a job

  • How to get away from your job

  • How to get promoted

  • How to survive when your best friend is promoted over you to be your new boss

  • How to get along with the office bully

  • How to communicate better with people who ignore you


Scores of books also exist on issues that arise from leadership challenges, team dynamics, generational profiles, gender, and cultural differences. They each explore a narrow slice of an extremely broad topic.


This Book Provides a Broader View about Relationships


Harmony at Work offers a different approach. You’ll find three main benefits to looking at your relationships from a more global, 30,000-foot view.


First, we experience predictable stages of development as we interact with most people. This is true regardless of the nature of our contact with others. At times, it seems that you have just begun to figure out a person or situation, and then the relationship changes its tune, leaving you adrift.


Harmony at Work will help you notice those shifts and understand the characteristics of each phase. This awareness then makes it easier to navigate through each of those stages more successfully. It also reduces the tendency to feel resentment and fear regarding those inevitable changes.


Second, we all have some relationships at work that are more productive than others. You may get along well with your own team members but argue with people in other departments. You might be voted the Employee of the Month within the office but alienate vendors or customers. Often, you can be assertive with some people in your life but may get too aggressive or too submissive with others.


This book offers tools to recognize what you do well in your healthy relationships, as well as tuning into the recurring themes in difficult interactions. These tools will help you transfer your skills and insights from the successful situations to the ones that are more problematic. You may also find ways to apply successful approaches at work to your personal interactions and vice versa.


The third benefit relates to what my brilliant friend Karin often says: “We take ourselves with us wherever we go!” This is the most important value of examining the whole range of your relationships at work. No matter how fast you run or how well you hide, you take your own personality—assets, liabilities, needs, and interests—into every conversation in which you engage.


Sometimes you might try to disguise your true self by not saying honestly what you think or feel. You may be a clever poker player and not show others all of your emotional cards. You may fool some of the people some of the time. Your real thoughts and feelings, however, usually leak through your pretenses: they often stand out awkwardly like an out-of-tune singer in a choir.


In the final analysis, we do take ourselves with us into each of our relationships. Harmony at Work suggests ways to be more conscious of your own patterns. You might notice that


  • You often feel nervous around certain types of people and confident around others.

  • There may be very few people with whom you can be totally honest and trusting.

  • In specific situations, you repeatedly lose your patience or start to argue.

  • Some circumstances may make you giddy and impulsively prone to bad decisions.


Armed with this knowledge, you may approach challenging interactions better prepared. You can anticipate how you might react and plan more constructive responses. You might even guide the conversation toward a more desirable outcome.


This type of insight encourages you to shift your own behaviors in order to compose more satisfying responses to the music around you. On a good day, it may also motivate others to act differently, thus improving their contributions to the overall sound of the music you produce together.


Even though some people appear to manage relationships more effectively than others, no one is immune from these challenges. We all have our own Achilles heels and blind spots. It is part of what makes us human. Think how boring our lives would be if we could definitively sort out all of this touchy-feely stuff [2] and know the punchline of every conversation. We’d be asleep on our feet and miss all of the excitement.


So why read another book on relationships? Anytime you get two or more people together in a room, there is the potential for disharmony. [3] Most of us have at least a few people in our lives who intimidate or annoy us, and we are not always sure how to respond to them.


In this book, I examine several current theories about interpersonal dynamics. The purpose of this exploration is to


  • Boil down these concepts to a few, user-friendly ideas,

  • Find ways that these basic notions link up with each other,

  • Cite common examples of how these theories play out across the scope of our varied relationships at work, and

  • Offer some tools and exercises so you can apply this information to the relationships that give you the most stomach aches, tears, or high blood pressure.


What Does Music Have to Do with Relationships?


The parallels between music and relationships first occurred to me during a meeting with one of my corporate clients. I was leading a strategic planning retreat for their senior management team. Each of the ten executives had different priorities and ideas for how to move the company forward. The familiar phrase “herding cats” [4] kept running through my mind. At one point, a vice president said, “I feel like Susan’s trying to conduct a choir here, but we all have different pages of music, and we’re all singing in different keys. No wonder we sound so awful!”


I had another experience several years ago that further highlighted the similarities between music and relationships. While working on a project in a local high school, I walked into a music class to give a message to the choir director. It was the second week of school, and the scene was controlled chaos.


The director calmly encouraged the students to focus on the music in front of them. A few of the kids were actually singing, watching him, or looking at the music. Most, however, were flirting, fidgeting, whispering, or staring into space. Several were blatantly texting on their phones. Many looked as if they had forgotten to brush their hair or put on clean clothes before coming to school that day.


When the director finally got the group singing, they were out of tune and behind the beat. There was absolutely no balance between the melody and harmonies. The sounds they made were painful to my ears, and I was amazed at the director’s patience. I wondered if all choir classes were so ragged at the start of each school year. I also began to doubt that I would want to attend any of their performances.


Now fast-forward to their first concert three months later. The students wore suits and dresses. Standing tall on the auditorium risers, they had smiles on their faces and a sparkle in their eyes. They watched the director closely and followed his cues, hitting the correct pitches at the right times. The music was miraculously beautiful. The singers were obviously proud. The director was thrilled. The enthusiastic parents clapped wildly, some discreetly dabbing tears from their eyes with one hand while trying to record the moment on their phone.


What happened between that early September rehearsal and the first concert? The relationships between the director, the students, and the music had all evolved. The singers developed the skills to sing in tune. They had been trained to follow the director’s cues. They noticed when they needed to adjust the tempo or volume. They listened carefully so they could blend with each other. The director had guided the choir to allow the repertoire and the relationships to develop. Everyone knew they had made progress, because the music sounded good, and they were having fun with the songs.


Like the high school choir, our relationships at work can evolve as well. Those interactions, like music, can be short, simple songs or long, complex masterpieces. They may sound harmonious or dissonant, lively or boring. Relationships, like music, fit into specific genres: boss, team member, customer, or vendor; classical, rock, jazz, or rap. They also become more interesting when we have the skills to vary their tempo, volume, and structure.


In many ways, the steps we go through to create the music of our professional relationships resemble the steps taken by that high school choir director. Whether we’re conducting a choral group of staff members, or tackling a difficult duet with a colleague, we have the potential to sing harmoniously together or make a huge, discordant mess. Sometimes, we do both in the same day. Unfortunately, we may have no idea why it is so easy to make beautiful music with some people, and why other interactions sound so out of tune. We might not even be singing the right songs together.


What Are the Six Main Stages of Harmony at Work?


“Every exception proves the rule,” according to an old adage. No matter how you define the structure of relationships overall, there will certainly be exceptions that challenge your definition. Nevertheless, most relationships will evolve through some predictable stages as they develop. Some of these stages may be skipped, repeated, or occur in a different order, depending on the context and the people involved. The duration of each stage will also vary.


When looking at interactions at work, it is helpful to understand, and thus anticipate, the six most common sequences that you may experience with others. In this way, you can prepare for, and more effectively manage, the dynamics at each juncture. Otherwise, the challenges will sneak up behind you and thwap you over the head with an interpersonal baseball bat! [5]


Every relationship stage has distinctive tempos, with highs and lows that are fundamental parts of the interpersonal music. These rhythms and the responses they elicit make the

songs we sing with others more challenging. They also make them more interesting. As a result, certain resources are helpful to use with each stage.


Harmony at Work offers tools to help you conduct these six predictable stages of relationship evolution more harmoniously. These six stages form the structure of the rest of this book:

1. Auditions: Deciding to Join the Choir or Sit Out

When you contemplate finding a new job, accepting a promotion, or making a new contact at work, it helps to explore the variables that impact your initial decisions. It is important to first consider your needs, hopes, and fears. These, along with past work experiences, influence what you will look for if you decide to engage in a new relationship.


2. First Notes: Starting the Song with Gusto

Once you decide to pursue a new job or relationship, it is helpful to review your options for initiating that new contact. You need to decide whom to approach, how to initiate contact, and how to best present yourself. When you begin composing new relationships thoughtfully rather than using your unconscious habits, you have greater success and make better music.


3. New Songs: Making Beautiful Music Together

The beginning notes of the music you create with a new boss, team, vendor, or customer can be exhilarating. You need to examine the responses that you typically have to those new songs. That reflection includes what kinds of agreements you want to make and how best to leverage your strengths to address challenges. The way you begin these new songs often sets the tone for the relationship long term.


4. Clashing Chords: Resolving Initial Dissonance

Eventually you need to deal with the emerging discord that may occur as the repertoire develops with colleagues. Once a new song becomes familiar, the tunes that initially attracted you to others may annoy you after a while. At this point, it is crucial to build your skills and confidence to address conflicts directly. It also helps to recognize what is causing the issues. It takes courage to share concerns frankly and resolve disagreements successfully. Your willingness to examine dissonance impacts how the song will progress long term, or if it will end prematurely.


5. Encores: Fine-tuning the Evolving Song

Once you have navigated through the first four stages, the next stage involves the ability to modulate and strengthen the music over time. Some of us are great musicians who easily compose new songs, but most of us need help finding ways to keep the music interesting over time. Clear roles, strong communication, and strategies to mitigate boredom all play a key role here. The tools and techniques used in Encores play a crucial part in determining both the tenor and the vibrancy of the relationship’s music over time.


6. Finales: Knowing If, When, and How to End the Song

Some musicians are one-hit wonders: they have one memorable recording, making their success dazzling but short-lived. Others, like Bach and the Beatles, create music that survives and thrives for decades. It is the same with interpersonal dynamics. We need intentional strategies to maintain the harmony and commitment for relationships over time or figure out how to end them with grace and gratitude. Ironically, it is often the long-term management of individual and team interactions that is most challenging.

These six stages do not represent a simple, linear process. Sometimes, you may need to backtrack and revisit some of these stages whenever the relationship song shifts. You might have worked with someone for five years, but if one of you is suddenly promoted to supervise the other, you basically start all over with a new song. Someone may have been a close partner for decades, but with the occurrence of a birth, death, marriage, divorce, or job change for either person, the shift may cause both of you to revisit many of these six phases.

How Is Relationship Management a Recurring Theme in Most Careers?


All of my professional life has been focused on relationships of various kinds. My first six years after college were spent in education. I knew that my skills in teaching the core academic subjects were important. However, the strength of my relationships with the students, their parents, and other teachers had an even greater impact on how the kids grew and learned.


I then spent three years as a behavioral psychologist, working with chronic-pain patients. Again, it was evident that I needed to establish rapport with each patient, as well as with my professional colleagues, so we could help our patients achieve their therapeutic goals.


Since 1982, I have worked as a leadership consultant, corporate trainer, meeting facilitator, and executive coach. Ninety percent of my clients’ requests are tied to relationships—how they communicate and resolve conflicts with the people in all facets of their lives. I often meet individuals who have superb technical skills for a given job but have such major interpersonal barriers that they cannot succeed at work. There are also many folks who are smart, attractive, and have interesting jobs but cannot maintain an intimate, long-term relationship in their personal life with a significant other.


I have learned that relationship management is often the unidentified elephant in the middle of the room. [6] People don’t want to talk about it, don’t know how it got there, don’t like the mess it leaves on the floor, and can’t figure out how to get rid of it. They may fail to recognize that the elephant is in the room for a reason. Until they understand how to feed it, clean up after it, and then lead it gently back to its native habitat, it will make the music of their career difficult if not completely off-key and block their path to success and satisfaction.


This gap between technical and interpersonal skills is like an aspiring professional singer who has a fabulous voice, but terrible stage fright. Her fear causes awful performances in spite of her talent. My aunt Lilly was another example of this pattern. She trained to be an opera singer. But her performance anxiety made her choke and falter at every audition, which kept her from ever being hired for any professional singing roles.


Solid skills and strong material are necessary but not always sufficient for success at work. If I had a nickel for each time that I have met someone with such discrepancies between their specific job competencies and their people skills, I could donate large sums of money to my favorite charities.


Similarly, I have learned a great deal about relationships through my involvement with music. Singing has been a lifelong passion, and I have had the privilege to sing in some wonderful choirs and ensembles. I have also enjoyed conducting a small community choir for over thirty years. In all of these groups, the singers need to listen to each other and watch for cues from the director. At the same time, they must be aware of their own timing, pitch, and expression. I believe singing with others is a perfect metaphor for how we need to conduct our work relationships. [7]


Earbuds, Surround Sound, and Streaming: A Balanced Relationship Diet


Music comes to us in many forms:


  • Earbuds: our own carefully chosen playlists that only we can hear,

  • Surround sound: big, loud sound systems at home or in a concert venue with lots of vibration that blast everyone’s eardrums at once, or

  • Streaming services: subscriptions that let us listen to whatever they decide to play for us.


The music of relationship comes to us via many channels as well:


  • Earbuds: a quiet, intense one-on-one conversation in person, by phone, or online,

  • Surround sound: a large, lively team meeting with lots of conversation, activity, noise, and energy, or

  • Streaming services: the structure and timing of interactions is prescribed by others, when we need to sit back, observe, and respond to what comes our way.


In the same way that we can transfer relationship harmony skills from one stage to another, or from one person to another, the tools that we’ll explore in this book can be applied to many different types of relationships, regardless of the channels through which they are delivered.


Applications: What Is the Best Way to Sing Along with This Book?


You might prefer to start with the Contents page and work your way through the book systematically. Some of you may want to look over the chapter titles and start with one that addresses where you are in a current relationship that is challenging for you. A third option is to glance at the anecdotes at the beginning of each chapter and see which ones sound most intriguing and relevant to you. Also consider how these stages and tools apply to your personal relationships outside of work.


Like a well-constructed musical composition, I have attempted to weave together


  • Established theories,

  • Familiar examples,

  • Skill-practice exercises called rehearsals, and

  • Suggestions for ways to apply these ideas in your current relationships.


By giving you several different tunes from which to choose, I hope that each of you will find ways to best link these concepts to the relationships in your life that you most want to tune up and rearrange right now. Some models apply to leaders, while others apply to anyone who works on a team.


The first few stages are relevant for job seekers and people in new relationships. Later stages will help you to examine longer-term interactions that have either hit some sour notes or need some new energy. Human resources professionals and organization development consultants might find the ideas and exercises to be helpful to use with their clients.


You don’t need to be a professional musician to enjoy this book. In fact, you might have been one of those embarrassed third graders whose crabby music teacher said to you, “Please mouth the words to the songs during our assembly. You really can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and you’ll just throw the other children off if you try to sing.” [8]


There are no auditions required here: you are invited to hum along in whatever key you like. The important musical concepts that are used will be defined as we go. You will also find a glossary of key musical terminology at the end of the book.


The start of each chapter has a short dialogue among four friends: Juanita, Sally, Alex, and Omar. The intent of these conversations is to demonstrate how the characteristics and challenges of each stage of relationship evolution play out in real life. I hope you can relate to one or more of their experiences.


Where Are You Now?


Before we dig deeper into the six stages of relationship evolution that are covered in Harmony at Work, give yourself a quick rating for how well you think you currently manage each stage in general, using the following scale:

1= Not well: This stage is a struggle for me.

3= Fair: I have some skill and confidence, but I would like to improve.

5= Great: I feel comfortable and competent in this stage.


  1. Auditions                         1…….2…….3……..4……..5

  2. First Notes                       1…….2…….3……..4……..5

  3. New Songs                      1…….2…….3……..4……..5

  4. Clashing Chords              1…….2…….3……..4……..5

  5. Encores                            1…….2…….3……..4……..5

  6. Finales                             1…….2…….3……..4……..5


Then decide if you want to read this book in sequential order or start with the chapter that explains a stage in which you want to be more proficient.


Alternatively, you might think of a specific relationship that is causing you some angst. Consider which stage you believe you are now in with that person. You could start with the chapter that addresses that stage.

Final Notes: A Few More Suggestions before We Start to Sing


We often blame relationship problems on one of two assumptions:


  1. We focus on our own defects, think they are all our fault, and believe we need to beat ourselves up for our failings, or

  2. We assume that the other people involved are lazy, crazy, stupid, or evil (and sometimes all four).[9]


While either of these two notions might be convenient, neither is productive. The reality of relationships is that they are hard to start and even harder to maintain. By now, you know that they are always shifting. Relationships require constant attention and frequent tuning, just like musical instruments. When the temperature in the room changes, I need to retune my guitar. When a piano is moved to a new home, it needs to be re-tuned. When the trust level with an individual or group changes, I need to retune the relationship.[10]


We each resemble the employees who will be described at the beginning of each stage in some respects at least some of the time. Fortunately, there are specific methods to help us improve our singing with others. As you learn more about how to compose, refine, and practice harmonious relationships, you will feel more confident about the interpersonal music you make at work. If you’re not careful, you might also get more done and have more fun with your colleagues more of the time, regardless of which songs you choose to sing with them.


Managing relationships can be difficult. Our efforts to understand others and ourselves must be taken seriously. At the same time, I feel strongly that we need to be able to laugh at our own foibles. I sincerely hope that you find this book to be easy to use and occasionally worth a chuckle. The footnotes on many of the pages are intended to add some levity and can be ignored if they distract you. References to books, authors, and theoretical models can be found at the back of the book.


Your life and your relationships are a series of grand musical compositions. Some are carefully orchestrated, and others are full of improvised surprises. Each song has the potential to be either a source of great joy or profound pain. Much of the time, though, relationships are just plain wacko. [11] The themes, harmonies, and dissonances that you hear with others are constantly shifting and evolving. Remember, that makes them more interesting.


So put this book on your metaphorical music stand, along with other musical scores that you have collected in your life. Use it to provide new perspectives about the people who cross your path at work. Let it empower you to conduct your relationships with more courage, creativity, and harmony.


From time to time, step back from the music. Assess what sounds good and try to improve what is out of tune. Remember to look for humor in at least some of the sour notes that you and others make. Take some calculated risks. Practice and rearrange your songs as much as possible. Raise the conductor’s baton. Then start the music. See what you can do to create and enjoy more Harmony at Work.

Book 10
Book 9
Book 8
Book 7
Book 6
Book 5
Book 4
Book 3
Book 2
Book 1
Book 11

Get the Book to Read the Rest!

Harmony at Work includes seven additional chapters, plus additional resources and tools. 

Available on Amazon in print and Kindle formats. 

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