It’s common sense that good relationships with family, friends and co-workers must contribute to psychological health and good work performance. Research now confirms our good sense with scientific evidence and is transforming theoretical models of happiness.
Martin Seligman’s original happiness model focused on three pathways: pleasure, meaning, and flow. Now the importance of positive relationships has been recognized and given a place in the model (although whether they constitute a pillar or a foundation is debatable – read more here).
Small things make a big difference
The theory behind positive relationships in the workplace is quite broad, and includes Dutton and Heaphy’s work on High-Quality Connections. A selection of useful positive psychology based findings on the benefits of strong relationships includes:
- The only difference between the top 10% of happiest people and everyone else is their rich and satisfying social lives.
- People who have a best friend at work are more highly engaged and significantly more likely to engage their customers.
- Social support at work is essential to psychological well-being and increases feelings of personal control at work.
- Expressing gratitude helps develop positive relationships.
- Helping your partner capitalize on good news by responding enthusiastically builds positive relationships.
- Positive emotions are important to organizations: high performing business teams demonstrate a ratio of positivity to negativity of approximately 6:1.
- Positive emotions can undo negative emotions, lead to virtuous circles and build new resources, all of which are important in maintaining good relationships.
- Happiness is infectious therefore your good mood and positive emotions can influence those around you.
- Happy endings are important: people’s memories are influenced by how events turn out so it’s important to try to end on a high note.
What does this mean for you as a manager or leader in an organization? Consider the implications of these theories from a “relationship life cycle” perspective, and ask:
- How can we form positive work relationships, and make sure that they get off to a flying start?
- What do we need to do to develop and maintain positive work relationships over the medium to long term?
- Is there a way of continuing to have positive interactions with former co-workers and bosses, even when the formal work relationship has come to an end?
Building relationships even before you put a foot through the door:
T-Mobile, the UK telecoms company which is owned by Deutsche Telekom AG is developing ways to use new technology to build good relationships. They set up an internet-based social network to enable recent graduates to get to know each other better during the recruitment process, and then to keep in touch once they start work. This has benefited both the company and the graduates themselves. The company retains all the new recruits when normally they would experience some attrition. The graduates have a ready-made support network from their very first day in the office. They settle in faster and can start making a contribution more quickly.
Developing and maintaining strong bonds
As a manager or leader, one of your most important tasks is to get to know your team as individuals. This means finding out what motivates them, practicing active listening and Active Constructive Responding (see top right hand quadrant in Fig 1 below) and expressing your appreciation for what they do.
Here are some other tips and tools:
- Try using a personal profile introduction. This is a simple way to add a human touch to meetings — especially when people don’t know each other well. Rather than go round the table giving your name, role, department or location, try introducing yourself as a person: tell people who you are not what you are – give some personal information about your family, how you spend your spare time when you’re not at work, or even what your favorite music is. I learned a great deal about my own team with this exercise. I discovered that Navin took part in amateur light opera, Christie ran a local youth club, and Declan was an avid hill climber. Knowing these snippets of information makes it much easier to relate to people as people, rather than just as the Financial Accountant, the Sales Executive and the Marketing Director.
- As the leader or manager, you set the emotional tone. Your bad moods will cast a long shadow over the team, so if you’re prone to anxiety, anger or irritation, you might try Emotional Intelligence or meditation training to better regulate your emotions. If you can create an atmosphere of positivity, people will feel more engaged and able to contribute without fear of upsetting the boss.
- Make time to be sociable. Create opportunities to get to know colleagues outside of work, and allow them to get to know you. This could include brown bag lunches, or a trip to the pub after work. A word of warning however: you have to really want to do the social thing: Bob (ironically, a manager of the Corporate Relations Department) would schedule regular times to take his team out for drinks after work. These gatherings were well attended until it slipped out that Bob used his expense account to pay for the drinks. After that, people started giving excuses not to go; when they bought a round of drinks, they didn’t claim it as a work expense. They interpreted Bob’s actions as a sign that he wasn’t spending social time with them for the love of it.
The end of the affair
Until recently, the end of a contract often meant the end of those work relationships. The only reason for getting back in touch with a former employer would be to ask for a reference. Recent advancements in social networking technology has changed how we stay in touch professionally, though few organizations are actually managing relationships with former employees in a structured way.
Some companies taking so-called ‘corporate alumni relations’ seriously include professional services, consulting and high tech firms, such as McKinsey, Deloittes, HP and IBM. All of these companies run highly successful web-based alumni relations programs. Benefits of doing so include:
- More effective talent management in terms of lower cost, and higher quality and reach
- Strengthening their employee corporate culture by increasing trust and loyalty
- Creating new business
- Acquiring knowledge, innovation and market intelligence
- Extending their brand value and influence
There are enormous benefits for the alumni too, including access to job opportunities, professional development and expertise. Those companies which aren’t managing their relationships with their former employees are definitely missing a trick or two.It’s never been easier to keep up with current and former co-workers and friends, and to make new connections with people all over the globe. It’s possible to track down and keep in touch with people you used to work or go to college/school with –just by googling them, or using networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Friends Reunited. There really is no excuse for losing contact with former colleagues, or letting friendships lapse, other than lack of effort.
Two other great resources for creating positive relationships in your workplace are the Appreciative Inquiry model (see here), and Tom Rath’s book “Vital Friends.” In that book, Rath includes the case study of Carolyn, a female plant manager presiding over male-only production lines. The story is a great example of how to build momentum toward transformational change in an organization. Sharing Carolyn’s story could introduce key theories and concepts and highlight the importance of positive relationships. Even small changes can make a big difference to your relationships. ”If it worked with these old blokes” said Carolyn, “it should work for anyone”.
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Diener, E. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.
Dutton, J.E. & Heaphy, E.D. (2003). The power of high-quality connections. In K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton & R.E. Quinn (Eds.) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, (pp. 263-278). San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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Rath, T. (2007). Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without. New York: Gallup Press.
Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, K., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. (2005). A socially embedded model of thriving at work. Organization Science, 16(5), 537-549.