How lukewarm duos can get you into hot water
Here’s a quick quiz. Think about your relationship with each person on your team, and note whether any of them match the following description:
You know some basics about each other but not much more.
Your conversations are cordial and generally stay on the surface.
You only really interact when the work requires it.
There’s very little friction but also no real connection.
Sound familiar? Then you likely have a lukewarm bond with someone at work, or what we call a “neutral duo.” A duo, by the way, is simply you plus another person. You’re in a duo with each person on your team, whether you think of it that way or not.
And, odds are, you’re not thinking much about this neutral duo. There’s nothing overtly problematic about the relationship, so you don’t see it as a liability. And because there’s no deep connection, you don’t see it as an asset. But weak bonds like this have hidden pitfalls — and also hidden potential.
To put this in context, consider the three main types of duos: Strong, broken, and neutral. It helps to think of all three in terms of basic equations.
Strong duos have deep reserves of mutual trust and understanding. When there’s friction, it’s productive. You bring out the best in each other — and accomplish far more together than you do alone. It feels like 1+ 1 = 3.
Broken duos are characterized by a lack of trust. You both feel misunderstood or unappreciated by the other. You tend to work at cross-purposes, and the relationship drains you each of time and energy. It’s like 1+ 1 = 0.
Neutral duos are neither strong nor broken. The bond is just kind of weak. There’s no negative effect — but also no added value. It feels pretty much like 1 + 1 = 2. For now.
Here’s the thing: Neutral duos can easily be broken or boosted. And that’s why it’s a mistake to take them for granted.
A weak bond is fine so long as the pressure’s off. But when the team hits a wall or something goes wrong, there’s no bank account of trust to draw from and no deep understanding to trigger empathy. That can lead to misinterpretation, frustration, and even outright acrimony.
With a neutral duo, it might also feel as if there’s less at stake. There’s a reduced sense of personal investment, because you haven’t yet put care or work into the relationship. So, if things take a wrong turn, it makes it easier to shrug your shoulders and write the person off. And even when things aren’t going poorly, neutral duos suppress the overall energy of the team. They make the work feel more transactional.
But even more important than the hidden risk is the hidden potential. With a little extra effort, a neutral duo can become a strong one. And strong duos have a positive effect on the entire team. They not only get more done, they get it done more easily. They have a shorthand that expedites collaboration and a shared sense of purpose that drives the work forward. They boost each other’s confidence and optimism — thus elevating the belief of those around them.
A neutral duo is really just a strong duo that hasn’t yet been activated.
So, what does it take to turn “1+1=2” into “1+1=3”? Honestly, it all comes down to a little curiosity and the desire to make a human connection. Presume the other half of your duo is interesting, and try to find the parts that interest you. Grab lunch or coffee together. Book some 1:1 meetings. Make time for casual banter. Fill in the gaps of knowledge about your respective backgrounds, interests, passions, and pet peeves. Consider what you have to learn and what you have to offer.
And begin making deposits in your trust bank account before you need to take out a loan. The more you signal faith in people, the more they live up to that expectation. If you start acting like you’re in a strong duo, pretty soon you will be in one.