Imagine this scenario. You’re at the gym with your good friend, and you wince as you get up from a particularly gnarly stretch. Grabbing your back, your friend tells you, “You should see my chiropractor. She’s great.”
Of course, your friend hasn’t captured this hapless medical professional and stored her in the attic, just in case. But the language around who we trust with our business is that of ownership.
Owning our opinions, choices, and mistakes is an integral part of maturity. It is one reason “I” statements demonstrate that willingness to “own our shit.”
Owning whom we place our sacred trust in is vital to our business experience.
Most families will refer you to “their lawyer,” when you turn to them for legal advice. If your kid has the sniffles, some may insist “my doctor” is compassionate and thorough. In the business world, you could be unwittingly referring “my graphic designer,” or “my accountant” or even “my copywriter” (fingers crossed) to other trusted business contacts.
Some may balk at the “my” concept, as some use “my” in the context of servitude, e.g., “my butler” or “my chauffeur.” However, this usage of “my” is relational, not subordinate.
Being someone’s “my” is a great feeling. If you’re dubbed a “my” by a good colleague or peer, it demonstrates a great level of trust and faith in one’s ability. The business benefits are obvious, but worth mentioning; you’ll never go wanting for work from that client, and you’ll have a good pipeline of referrals originating from them. But is there a limit to how many people you can be a “my” to?
Let’s talk about Dunbar’s number
How many Facebook friends do you have? If you mentioned you had one thousand friends twenty years ago, people would look at you as if you were a bit mad. If you feel that maintaining a friendship with one thousand individual people with their own stuff going on would be near-on impossible, well, you’re right. The optimal number is about 150.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but Oxford University Professor Emeritus of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar proposed this number as the limit at which a person can maintain stable personal interrelationships; that is, knowing each person on an individual level, and how that individual relates to all the other people in the group.
Dunbar made observations with primates, showing 148 was the mean size for communities with a high incentive to remain together. Despite the well-worn buzzword “our tribe” (I’ll admonish myself later for typing that, though it isn’t banned yet a ten-thousand strong hashtag “tribe” can’t just cohere around one common interest. These sorts of interest groups are usually top down – a leader imparting knowledge to a mass of engaged, but not interrelated, people.
A social unit’s capacity for trusting interrelationship would break down once it became larger than 200 or so (on average – these are not exact numbers.) This number is important for unit cohesion. For example, a military Company operates with ranks of about 150. Like the military, many corporations organise their business divisions along Dunbar’s principles. American W.L. Gore and Associates, manufacturers of the Gore-Tex waterproof fabric, designed all their factories and administration facilities along Dunbar’s number to increase efficiency and cohesion.
It begs the question: can you become a “my” professional to everyone and anyone you come across?
Well, not really. But that isn’t altogether a bad thing.
Becoming a “My” – you can’t really fake it
Becoming someone’s “my” needs to feel authentic; you can’t just fake it.
In my experience, becoming someone’s “my” requires a few key ingredients:
- A genuine interest in your client’s work and life;
- A sincere emotional and material investment in their wellbeing and success, and
- Being dependable, not indispensable.
Becoming someone’s “my” doesn’t mean becoming part of the furniture, or part of the family. You are a professional businessperson, and a good reciprocal “my” relationship is built out of respect for your practice or craft. A client that calls you “my” would never dream of hitting you up for work for free; nor would you try and nickel and dime your “my” if there was a chance to make a quick buck.
A “my” business relationship has many elements of friendship; including clear and consistent boundaries. A “my” respects your personhood. A “my” would loathe to push these boundaries by demanding your work at obscene hours, for insulting pay, or to intolerable deadlines.
Though you can’t be a “my” to everyone you meet, nurturing your “my” clients not only ensures a prosperous relationship based on mutual benefit, but a social proof that your skills are as good as you yourself claim.
Do you have any “my” clients? Do you refer them to others without any hesitation? What do they say about you?