Dual Relationships in Your Project Team
From time to time my clients present me with personal information that blurs the line between our professional relationship and a perceived personal or supportive one. This can have a detrimental effect on my ability to provide the best service I can, so I would like to address it.
The 'Dual' or 'Double' Relationship
A dual relationship is one in which person A has two or more roles to fulfil for person B. When this happens, person A often finds themselves with conflicting priorities over how to talk to person B. Dual relationships are often difficult to maintain and are best avoided, especially when one of the relationships is a working one where there are specific goals and a Terms of Service or a contract, and where the other is a friendship, where there are no goals and the dynamics of 'give and take' are woolly.
My boundaries over how much personal discussion I am happy to do with my clients may appear to be 'soft' - that is, you may find it difficult to distinguish what is acceptable and what is not. This blog post is intended to help you recognise what personal discussions I accept and what I don't, my reasons for this, and what else you can do.
I often start a conversation by asking my clients "How are you today?" or some variation of this. This is intended as a cordial gesture, but while you are welcome to mention issues that may interfere with our work together, such as being very tired due to a lack of sleep the previous night or needing to watch over a sick pet during a consultation session, it is not intended as an invitation to tell me about your struggles with your family, work colleagues, sexual partner, and friends. My purpose for asking is to get a sense of context for my work with you. If I know you're in college and working with me for escapism then I know to expect our working patterns to be different than if you're a working mum using your creative project as a side-hustle or whether you're retired and have all the time in the world to indulge your creativity.
A good rule of thumb is: if the answer, "I'm sorry to hear that." is appropriate and sufficient for the situation then you are welcome to tell me. If your reply requires a more substantial answer (for example, if you tell me you've been feeling suicidal lately), then I suggest that seeking help elsewhere is advisable.
This is not an effort on my part to be cold or unsympathetic, it is my way of protecting our working relationship by preventing it from becoming a dual relationship. This allows me to continue to focus on providing you with the service you are paying me for. That means I am strictly your character consultant or worldbuilding facilitator, and not your therapist or your buddy.
I recognise that it can take courage and strength to reach out about many issues, so I do not wish to reject your efforts to do so out of hand and have written a blog entry specifically in case you are in distress. Please see this blog post for a list of support networks, plus instructions on how to find yourself a counsellor or therapist.
Please also note that information that you disclose to me on one day can have consequences for our working relationship later.
Example 1 - Girlfriend Problems
While I do not wish to be sexist in my description of this situation, I have mainly observed a trend of men complaining to me about their girlfriends and have yet to experience any women complaining to me about their partners. If and when this situation changes I will update this article, but until then I believe that making the distinction of men complaining about women (and perhaps non-female partners? I have yet to see) is a notable part of this dynamic.
I have experience of two male clients who had other people, including their girlfriends, working on their creative projects. One, Client A, complained to me (and, it later turned out, the rest of his creative team) that his girlfriend wouldn't engage in video-call sex with him. Client A's girlfriend later learned of her boyfriend's disclosure of their private life through the grapevine.
Later, Client A reached a point where I believed it would be beneficial for his project if his team had a focal point such as a Discord server to talk in, so I suggested it to him. I also pointed out the fact that he had told most members of his team about his girlfriend's lack of willingness to engage in sexual acts some time previously, which might make the working space unpleasant for her. My client said he would discuss this with his girlfriend. She then contacted me separately, furious that I would bring this subject up. My client was also deeply upset at me for raising this issue, but only after his girlfriend had reacted*.
If a client of mine has other people working on his project (such as an author, a writer, and a Discord moderator/administrator; usually my client is the project leader) then I consider this a creative team, with me as a member but not the leader. If a client's girlfriend is part of the team then I consider her just as much a member of the working team as everyone else. If my client complains to me about his relationship, then that furnishes me with deeply personal information about one of my team-mates, which begins to shade that relationship with a dual quality.
*Please note that couples therapy is considered a skill in its own right in the world of therapeutic counselling, and this kind of situation is why: when there is conflict between two halves of a couple, often blame is deflected to a third party, and this is what happened here. I believe I did the right thing in raising my concerns, but am aware that there are no fully 'right' answers to situations like this. Managing such a situation falls outside my remit as a character consultant.
Example 2 - Venting or Moping
Turning a creative idea into an interactive and/or commercial project takes more work than you may first realise. Unfortunately a project manager cannot simply throw money at a project and compile a team, and expect that to be enough to make their project come to fruition. Management is a hands-on, not a hands-off process.
Chances are, if you're reading this, you're the project manager.
Have you ever noticed how, in most working environments, there is a person whose sole role is 'manager'? That person tends to spend their entire time at work managing the team, because management often is a full-time job. The results of their labours may not be as obvious as that of their team members, but they are working all the same. That's how it will be for you. Most teams are not self-managing.
Team management is a skill. It's not enough to assume that you can just give a title to someone and leave them to get on with working on their new role. I'll say more about this in a blog series that I'll post later this year, but for now, I hope it is enough for me to say that you, as the leader of a creative project, will need to do more than you may first realise.
Client B had bags of enthusiasm for his project and, while he didn't explicitly say so, I think he believed that his enthusiasm would rub off on his team. Perhaps he also hoped that he could give people in his audience titles such as "moderator", "project artist", etc. and for this to be enough to inspire them to work hard for him to live up to these titles.
This didn't happen and the project floundered. After Client B had realised that his enthusiasm wasn't enough he began to vent publicly (and regularly) in his Discord server about how unhappy and hopeless he felt. This did not encourage his team or audience. Few people will engage further in a project out of pity.
I tried introducing Client B to a set of project management tools and skills but he barely engaged with them, and soon afterwards he gave up on the project entirely.
How To Prevent Dual Relationships
If you have a creative project, consider having online accounts specifically for that, and keep your personal life strictly separate from your project. I suggest you have two groups: one for your project, and one for your friendships where you can vent about your frustrations and uncertainties to your heart's content without damaging your project's prospects. Keep the two as separate as possible.
How To Protect Dual Relationships that Already Exist
It's entirely possible that you will end up with at least one dual relationship in your team. You may be good friends with a writer who loves your idea and wants to help you work on it, for example. This doesn't need to become a problem in itself. You will need to do a few things to keep your relationship healthy:
- Think about any points of tension between you and your partner or friend that exist before you offer them a position on your team. Any issues you experience then are likely to be magnified when you work together (do they often show up late after you have agreed to meet up, for instance? Or do they tend to make all of your conversations about themselves? Or have you been wanting them to do something for a while but they just won't get around to it but haven't told you a clear "no, I don't want to do this"?).
- Be clear with your friend/team-mate about when you are working on the project and when you are not. If you are online then your friend may want to maintain two separate accounts to help make it clear which role they're using to interact with you. Using a tag or only posting in a particular channel of a Discord server when in their 'team-mate' role may help too. If you are working with them offline, only working on your project at certain times of day, or explicitly saying, "this is about the project. How about -----" may also help.
- Write down what is expected from each of you as part of your contribution to the project. This will help make explicit what each of you expect to give, and to get back. I suggest you keep your requirements unemotional and easy to sum up in numbers or easily observable facts. For example, "have fun working together" isn't easy to quantify, but "moderate #general channel until the end of the college year, and then review to check if I can or want to continue" is. Is payment going to be expected? How many hours per week or month can you dedicate to the project? Will you expect a cut of any profits that may be made, and how will you arrange that? Who will own the finished product?
- Recognise the difference between friendships and networking. They can look similar but networking has a goal while friendships don't.
- Develop your skills as a leader. This includes learning about direct problem-solving (that is, avoiding passive-aggression to get what you want).
Some Quick Notes About...
'Managing upwards' is a term for when a team member makes suggestions to their leader about improvements that can be made to the management and leadership of the project. I do it from time to time.
Please note that managing upwards is not the same as actual management, and by doing so I do not take over responsibility for the management of your project. I make suggestions, just like I did with Client A, but responsibility over how to manage the suggestion remained with him.
Note that any member of the team can manage upwards - it won't necesarily be me. In my experience, moderators or administrators who have worked in similar roles in the past are more likely to manage upwards, but your artist or writer might do too.
You must recognise that managing a team is an interpersonal skill. Having problems with your girlfriend or family may seem worlds away from your progress with your project, but they both involve interacting with people and achieving a mutually desirable outcome. If you 'need' to be indirect to get what you want from your family or girlfriend, then you will probably 'need' to do the same with your team, and your team may not respond the way you were hoping.
You may find this article about social awkwardness helpful. It's mainly about social awkwardness by young men around attractive women, but the same rules apply in many different contexts. I have worked with a few socially awkward project managers who have used similar strategies to get me to do extra work that falls outside of my remit as a character consultant, and combatting this can be exhausting and frustrating for all parties, especially if my client ultimately refuses to take full responsibility for the success or failure of their project.
I hope that this article has helped to clear some things up. The best rule of thumb for talking to me about your personal issues is, are you just giving me context for how we are going to work, or do you expect me to do anything about your personal problems?
Please consider the above information about indirectness/passive-aggression and directness. It requires personal growth and courage, but it will make your real life and your project easier.
Title image by Lingrimm and used with their kind permission.