Skip to main content

Relationships: Physically distancing, socially connecting

| March 24, 2020

by Sean McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sean McDonald, Vice-President of MOR Associates. Sean may be reached at [email protected].]

Last week when we wrote about leadership during this time we also asked you to share your most pressing leadership challenges. We appreciate the many responses we got and will be using these inputs to influence near term Tuesday Readings. One thread throughout the submitted topics was the heightened awareness and importance of relationships. For the MOR community this is no surprise. Yet today’s context is different. With routines out of whack, investing in relationships has a deeper meaning and requires new approaches. This article seeks to accomplish two things; first, looking back and assessing what our prior investments have meant for what we are trying to accomplish today, and second, help us establish new practices for staying connected in a new environment.

Over the past couple of weeks our environment has been disrupted like never before, only to be outdone by the next day’s news. The urgency calling us all is unprecedented.  Across the MOR community we are seeing individuals and teams step forward in an effort to help. We are so proud and impressed to see ‘lead from where you are’ in action all at once in so many places. People and teams are coming together with shared purpose.  The prior investments made in relationships has built the trust that is enabling collective pursuit of unimaginable challenges. And though weeks feel like months, there is a positive energy stirring about. I’ve seen this internally with the MOR team and heard about it from so many of you about your teams.  Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere. Yes, people and teams are still working at heroic levels, but without trust and alignment, there is discontent.

This is worth a reflection as you assess what you are asking of those around you and how they are responding. Have you built the relationships and trust needed for this day? Did you make past investments at the levels matching your current calls for support? Regardless, here you are. Either way, today is a pivot moment for the future.

And then, just about everyone gets sent home, working from our home offices, basements, or kitchen tables. The traditional obstacles MOR hears that prevent investing in relationships have now only amplified: no time, not in my comfort zone, and out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Add to that our shifted mental energies in a time of threat, of fight or flight, and the result has us hunkering down, protecting our own. Investing in relationships outside your immediate circle just wasn’t initially on your mind.

You know it is time. In fact, for the stretch ahead, relationships will be more important than ever. How will you proceed with new layers of complication and unfamiliar patterns? The good news, there is opportunity in the newness of our upside down daily routines. Our days are now rich with the possibility of new practices.

To support your stepping forward with growing needed practices for relationships building we will call on a tried-and-true MOR tool from the toolbox, the four I’s of Relationship Building; Initiate, Inquire, Invest and Influence. And we will do so with the COVID-19 context in mind.


The first ‘I’, the reminder that you need to be intentional and you need to be the one to reach out. The challenge is the relationships you were focused on a month ago are not the same ones that need attention today. Where do you begin?

What, Why and Who
Start with a deep breath. Grab a blank sheet of paper and begin to think about the what and why. What are you after? Collaboration, support in a crisis, connection, curiosity, progress? Keep going, why are these things important to you now and in the coming months? As specific people are coming to mind, capture those names. Categorize the lists so they make sense for you. There are no wrong answers. You have likely jotted down the names of your family, your direct reports, your peers. Go wider. What about the people you serve, even though you know they may be focused elsewhere at the moment? What might they need? What about the people you used to see everyday in the office? What about the people you didn’t see every day in the office? New game, new rules, keep brainstorming. And how about your colleagues on the front line right now? Do they need relief or support? And past project team members that always impressed you? How about old friends? What about neighbors and communities you have been part of? What about those we may not know?  What about those impacted hardest by this crisis? Supporting starts with initiating.

Ok. You’ve got a full sheet of paper now. This is not a to-do list, but this type of thinking does get you up on the balcony and allows for better prioritizing in your initiation plans. It begins to move us from reaction mode to being intentional.

How and When
Now, narrow in and begin to explore the possibilities of new practices. Remember, a practice is an action done repeatedly in service of a goal. The goal(s) in this case are defined by your what, why and who. In this new context with all new routines, what are the right practices for you to adopt? Previously you may have had a weekly in-person team meeting, should this be reimagined to 15-minute daily video conference huddle? Your project stakeholders from three weeks ago, likely focused elsewhere today, can you reach out to one a day, just to let them know you are thinking of them and will be there when needed. You get to pick the right audience and the right intervals, but the reminder is, above all else, you have to initiate.


We have established that for some relationships, especially during this time, initiation might be enough. Letting people know you are thinking of them is meaningful. And for those whose comfort zones are being tested with relationship building, you may also be happy to leave it at the first i. But in most cases, as we know, after we initiate the next step in the four I’s of Relationship Building is to inquire.  

In the current context two inquiries stand out that we would like to highlight. The first, how are you? A staple inquiry with historical insignificance, but today, those words hit a new chord. Those words spoken in a conversation now are said with sincerity and deeper meaning. We are connecting at new levels, people first. It took a pandemic to make this happen, but our practices today, of inquiring about the person on the other side, is a norm we can all seek to carry forward with us well into the future.

The second inquiry standing out in today’s context is what do you need? Whether it is our team members executing the front line efforts, our clients, or family members. We are reminded the power of inquiry allows for listening and understanding. Every individual is processing our current events in different ways and at whatever pace they can absorb. Inquiry allows us to meet them where they are. Understanding what they need allows us to support their next step on the journey. This alignment will allow for stronger inclusive progress.


Often the first two I’s are easily adopted by MOR clients. They tell us it is one of the things they remember most from their leadership development experience. The third i, invest, is harder. It requires repeat visits, repeat initiative, it requires trade-offs with our time. Today, with the news of COVID-19 surrounding our every move, we can begin to see more clearly which relationships are most necessary for investment. We can also begin to look ahead, what investments today will better establish the relationships you desire for tomorrow?

My grandmother, Mary McDonald, used to say “live each day as though it is your last, but plan as though you’ll live forever.” Those words can be a guide for us all, never leave the importance of a relationship unspoken. Invest with intention, invest where it matters, invest now.


Influence in the four I’s of Relationship Building has traditionally been wrapped around the pursuit of moving the work of our institutions forward. In today’s context influence could become more about character. When this is all said and done, when we finally secede from this tunnel we are traveling through together, regardless of what the new normal looks like, how will others remember you during this time? How will your team, neighborhood, community and world actually be impacted because of the initiation and investments you made along the way?

In our MOR workshops, we share our leadership journeys, the roller coaster of ups and downs that have shaped us as leaders.  This moment in time will be a pivot for us all.  Though the current state of events is a negative one for us all, which direction will your leadership growth be pointed when you tell this story years from now?  How can you make sure this becomes a pivot of growth for you as a leader?

Good luck. Call on us where needed. Consider this an initiation to you. Your relationship with the MOR community is important to us.


P.S. Thank you for all the feedback a few weeks ago on plus/deltas for Tuesday Reading overall.  We had originally planned to devote a Tuesday Reading to those results in March.  However, we are postponing that in favor of pressing topics related to COVID-19 over the coming weeks.  David will return to that feedback at a later date.