5 Stages of Relationships


The next topic in our current series on relationships is the five stages of relationships (previous topics include the importance of relationships at work and 7 types of work relationships).

The stages of relationships (based on George Levinger’s model) help us understand how we can move from type of work relationship to another. If you want to go from co-worker to work friend, or team-member to mentor, having an understanding of these stages will help you determine what’s needed to get to the next level.

The 5 Stages of Relationships

#1. Acquaint

The first stage of any relationship is that of acquaintance. This stage of relationships houses the people on the periphery of your social circle, your co-workers. You see them at work or work-sponsored events, conversations are either shop talk or otherwise light and inconsequential.

Acquaintanceship is essentially the default stage of relationships. As a socially-adapted person, you can quickly reach this stage with just about anyone simply by being your naturally charming self and actually interacting with people. This stage is suitable for co-workers who you don’t actually co-work with often, but for any direct reports, managers or team-members, you’ll want to move to the next phase–buildup.

#2. Buildup

During the buildup phase, the two people involved have an increased level of trust and comfort with each other. In a professional context, this can take the form of an adviser role, the beginnings of a mentorship, or as members of a team or committee.

When in this type of relationship, it is possible to influence the decisions and actions of a coworker and client. In order to preserve the relationship, it is important to not only act as a co-worker but also as a friend. Get to know the other person personally and use your influence sparingly and positively. Engaging in abuse of the privileges of your friendship can easily and quickly lead to its degradation or dissolution (stage 4).

The buildup phase takes the most consistent effort as it moves a relationship from acquaintance to continuation. Extended focus in this stage naturally leads into the most friendly of the stages””Continue.

#3. Continue

In Continue, there’s a deepening of trust and commitment to the relationship, and a corresponding increase in the amount of influence both people can exercise.

This is the ideal stage to have with your managers, direct reports and mentors/mentees after working with them for a period of time. This is where you’ll reap the benefits of better communication, improved productivity and an increased satisfaction with work.

Increased effort to maintain the relationship at this level comes with the increased trust and influence. It doesn’t have to be as constant as in the buildup stage, but it does have to be meaningful. Without that increase in effort, the relationship is likely to start deteriorating (stage 4), leading to a return to the acquaintance or termination stages.

#4. Deteriorate

Despite its negative connotation, deterioration is often a natural and necessary phase of professional relationships. No one works the same job forever, and circumstances frequently lead to a change in proximity between people, or even a change in the frequency of contact. Without paying special effort and attention to its maintenance, the relationship can revert back to an earlier stage in the personal relationship continuum.

As one of the people involved in the relationship, it falls on you to consider the benefits and drawbacks associated with maintaining or allowing the relationship to lapse. Frequently, in a professional atmosphere, a change in proximity or frequency of contact should be seen as an indication that change may be necessary.

#5. End

As with deterioration, there is no need to let the End stage’s connotations influence your perception of this phase of relationships. It is extremely unlikely that you will remain in contact with everyone you meet throughout your entire professional career, and so termination will be a natural step in many of your workplace relationships.

5 Stages of Relationships

Recognizing and becoming familiar with the concept of these stages will help you to make successful transitions between teams, projects and even companies. It can help also help you move from one type of relationship to another, depending on your role, needs and interests.

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{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Subliminal October 3, 2011, 6:58 am

    Now that we have online social media tools like Facebook and LinkedIn, stage #5 has changed. Before these technologies, a change in jobs or locations could effectively create a clear ending to the professional relationship. Now the relationship can continue at some level long after the change. I have had former coworkers contact me years later because they found me through social media. Of course, depending on the relationship, this could be good, opening up new job opportunities, or bad, when someone puts you on the spot to give them a ringing endorsement that you do not want to give.

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