I also look for less-obvious signals. For example, I observe not only how people treat me, but also how they treat others. Are they dismissive and rude with waiters and clerks, or are they generous and willing to overlook relatively minor mistakes? Do they talk about others with respect in general conversation, or do they routinely disparage others behind their backs? Do they talk about what they like and trust in other people, or do they talk mainly about how other people are dangerous? These signs can indicate whether people see relationships as primarily transactional and the transactions as fleeting, or whether they are strong candidates for future trusting alliances.
Moving toward Integrity
This isn’t to say that you should avoid dealing with all transactional people at all times. I regularly establish alliances with people who exhibit any of the four categories of behavior, but each category requires a different approach to the relationship. Working with someone in the first group — who is solely in it for him- or herself — can be tricky, fragile, and time-consuming. The alliance tends to be unstable and relatively brief. But if the ground rules are established correctly, such a person can be a valuable partner in the very short term — perhaps as an investor in a one-time deal or as a bridge to an important introduction.
It’s also possible to form good alliances with people in the tit-for-tat second group, but generally only if you create clear agreements and boundaries. If you’re hiring or going into business with one of these people, my advice is to put all terms in writing.
People in the third group are for the most part great allies, since they will invest proactively in the relationship and will be reliable, even when there is no immediate personal benefit. These two middle groups are the mainstays of most business transactions, as most professionals have varying needs for explicit signs of commitment to a partnership or a deal.
Alliances with people in the final group are more rare in the business world, and they work only when you share values and goals. Generally, you both have to have a fair amount of self-knowledge about what you stand for, and you must believe in each other’s mission in the world. Usually people in this fourth category have deep personal integrity, and they prize doing good for the sake of doing good. These are ideal partners for a long-term business relationship, but they may also demand a greater commitment from you, or a higher level of shared values, than a simple professional alliance requires.
Of course, these four types of attitudes aren’t mutually exclusive; people vacillate among them. I know many people who tend to start their professional relationships with relatively high levels of trust. But under stress, when they feel wronged, or when they see you doing something that they dislike, they revert to the more explicit, transactional alliances. On the other hand, some people can start by investing in the relationship with their eyes toward some future payoff, then ascend to the most altruistic level when they realize that they share significant trust with you, and a mission in the world.
When it comes to your career, although it may be tempting to forge lots of transactional alliances — after all, by their very nature, there is payoff for both parties — in the long run those alliances built on trust and integrity are most valuable. As I instinctively knew back in high school, these relationships open the door to more possibilities, and are more likely to lead to great accomplishments. I believe that the people who tend to become more effective in the world are those who build and nurture the best alliances.