“Business Relationships” used to sound like an oxymoron- there was business, and then there were relationships, friendships, you had outside of the business or work world.  Companies classically (and probably still do in many places) discourage workplace romantic relationships, as possibly undermining productivity and morale.  Let’s face it- when you get all “mushy and emotional” in business, your steely eyed judgment and practical decision-making can get clouded.  This leads to the whole premise of Dan Ariely’s book,  Predictably Irrational- the fact that we don;t always make the right decision, but frequently the wrong one, based on our emotional appartus swaying our judgement away from the facts.

But now, business relationships have become the currency of the day.  We want to get back to the time where we dealt with people, not just machines.  We want to know people, have a face and a feeling about a business or brand.  The cold, hard, calculated monolith of business is being infiltrated by the social scientists, who are convincing us that it’s okay to have both business and emotions in the same place and still succeed.

The problem with this over the old Ayn Rand/Mr. Spock way of operating business is that injured feelings heal much more slowly than injured bank accounts.

As a lawyer, I’ve see this all the time.  People get themselves into difficult circumstances because they’ve done things for emotional reasons without weighing all the practical ones as well.  Here are a few examples:

– Divorce is all about rash decisions, either from marrying someone who doesn’t really suit you or share your dreams for the future, or because you decided to go off and deal with your on priorities without a careful balance of what the impact might be on your spouse.

-Trusts & Estates- there’s an old saying- where there’s a will, there’s a relative.  It basically means that people get crazy when someone dies and people have to settle up their affairs.  More and bitter fights have divided families over a deceased loved one’s money and accumulated objects than divorce, I would be willing to bet.

-Family Business- here’s another loaded topic.  Dad has a business, he thinks he is preparing for his son to take over.  Son has no interest whatsoever, and wants to make his own way in the world.  Dad sells business, and son is bitter that his safety net/back-up plan is no longer there for him.  Or Dad gives business to one child and not the other…. you can imagine the discord from here.

And this doesn’t even get into the problems and hurt feelings that ensue when friends go into business together.

Whenever I approach a business relationship with friends, I always want to have the business particulars drawn out in writing.  This tends to seem really formal and silly at the time, but without “ground rules”, people quickly get in over their head.  Even when you have ground rules, the relationships aren’t always perfect, and it’s hard to keep the business and personal from creating toxicity if things go bad.

I was recently involved in a business relationships with good friends whom I trusted completely.  I trusted that because we were friends, they would obviously deal with me in an upfront manner.  I trusted that they would do everything they agreed to do pursuant to our contract.  I also thought they would value the relationship highly, since we were friends as well as colleagues.  I executed everything on my end to the letter, but the same hasn’t always been true on their side of the arrangement.  And what’s worse, the communication has been dreadful.  Despite many attempts to chat with them about it, they haven’t responded promptly, if at all.

The crux of the matter is this:  Because the trust implicit in our personal relationship bled over into the business relationship, I expected them to act more like friends and less like a corporate monolith.  Our business relationship took on corporate monolith -like failure to communicate overtones, which has damaged the trust I had in them both as business partners and as friends.  After all, if you don’t have any information to go on, you start to make stuff up and fill in the blanks yourself.  You might start out with excuses, but excuses quickly wear thin and all that is left is a feeling that they don’t care and you feel you are being treated with contempt, whether that was the intent from their side or not.

Taking a broader scope, this kind of story happens all the time online.  We think we have established a trust and friendship with people we do business with.  The conversation we can have on twitter, social networks, and even by email creates a sense of closeness and expectation that isn’t entirely reality based.  Because these are not people in your immediate daily social circle, there’s no sense of enduring personal obligation like there is with your neighbors or your child’s teacher.  We move ahead in business, thinking we have this incredible bond and relationship, based on how we feel, but in the end, business is business.  When someone disappoints us in an online relationship, the trust evaporates even more quickly than when your neighbor forgets to pick up your mail as promised.  You still have to live with that neighbor- the guy online is more distant, so your ability to rationalize and contextualize your relationship is significantly reduced.

This leads to trust being a very volitile currency on the web.  It can work extremely well, but it needs significant care and feeding to remain healthy.  It’s fragile, and can easily be damaged and lost.  And with the infinite choices available, people will easily find someone else to do business with.  But because the voices of dissent and distrust can always be heard, blog posts, comments and the like about bad relationships will haunt you through the power of Google and the Internet Way Back machine for years.

This means if you are going to play in social networks and social media, the one thing you can never take for granted is how you are building your trust and your relationships, and the ability to maintain those relationships is another currency you need to manage as wisely as the one in your bank account.

What do you think?  Is this true?  How do you build your trust relationship online?