Home All How to Create Strong Bonds in the Workplace

How to Create Strong Bonds in the Workplace

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 October 2009

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

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”.



Algoe, S.B., Haidt, J. & Gable, S.L. (2008). Beyond reciprocity: Gratitude and relationships in everyday life. Emotion, 8(3), 425-429.

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.

Fowler, J., & Christakis, N. (2009). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. British Medical Journal, 338 (7685), 1-13.

Fredrickson, B. (2000). Extracting meaning from past affective experiences: The importance of peaks, ends, and specific emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 577-606.

Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

Fredrickson, B., & Losada, M. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686

Gable, S.L., Reis, H.T., Impett, E.A., & Asher, E.R.(2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228-245.

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.


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Marcial Losada 27 October 2009 - 4:43 pm


I have read several of your articles and there is always much depth and meaning in them. This one on social bonds at the workplace particularly resonates with me.

One of my latest findings is that connectivity–the key paramenter in my model–is made up of two ingredients: emotional field and coordination of actions. Let me give you an example. I have worked with orchestras and what differentiates a superb one from a good one, is not coordination of actions (all the good ones coordinate quite well) but the creation of emotional fields among musicians, conductor and the public. Sir Simon Rattle, the current conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic realized that long ago with his City of Birmingham Orchestra in England that won many international awards.

What I find remarkable is that when you look at the percentages played by the emotional field and coordination of actions in creating bonds (connectivity), the emotional field accounts accounts for 95% of connectivity on the average. Coordination of actions is only 5% (plus minus two percentage points is the variation). It is critical, no doubt, like the car key is essential to start the motor running, but, unfortunately, many organizations spent too much money in the 5% and forget the 95% which would have a much greater return on their investment.

Bridget 27 October 2009 - 6:25 pm


Thank you so much for your comments; your findings on the contribution of the emotional field and co-ordination of action to creating strong bonds are fascinating. I can imagine that the vast majority of people in business would never guess that the balance is weighted so heavily in favour of emotions. And that they would probably be at a complete loss when it comes to acting on this startling information.

I was wondering whether orchestras are different to your average business team however, in that the aim or purpose of an orchestra is probably more emotional (“touching the hearts of the audience”) than rational (“playing the score perfectly”), whereas business teams lean towards the rational. Does that make a difference to the 95/5 split?

I liked the engine metaphor – so if co-ordination of action is the car key, is emotion the oil which keeps everything ticking along smoothly? Or possibly the gas? It provides a new slant on the phrase “running on empty”.


PS Can you direct me to your latest research paper on the 95/5 split – I’d like to read more about it.

Erica 27 October 2009 - 6:32 pm

Hey Bridget!
I love your idea of friendships in the work place. I with this kind of thinking could trickle down to the education system. I find that as a student I fear my professors. This tends to make me feel like I cannot go to them for help and guidance because I end up walking away feeling insignificant!
I was wondering how you think lines can be created while creating closer relationships in the work place. While closer bonds may make a better working environment it also breeds relationships. If anything can ruin a good vibe in any social setting, it is a break up! Do you think this can even be avoided? Of it it does occur do you have any ideas on how to deal with it?

Bridget 27 October 2009 - 7:10 pm

Hi Erica

Thank you so much for your comments and questions. Firstly, I’d say that Tom Rath is the one who has really brought friendships into the workplace to our attention in his book ‘Vital Friends’ – it’s an easy read, rather than an academic text, and worth getting hold of. Secondly, I’m sure many people feel overawed when in the presence of those they look up to, but even great professors were students at some point. And the really great ones are those who never stop being students ;-> I suppose the thing to remember is that, underneath it all, we are all human, even if some of us act as if we aren’t some of the time (which kind of proves the point anyway!). Your question about what happens when a relationship becomes too close is interesting; I think positive psychology has so far emphasised the importance of creating or developing positive relationships at work on the assumption that this will always be beneficial, but as you say, they may tip over into something more. It’s a bit like the argument about strengths which are overdone becoming weaknesses. I’m not aware of any research on the ‘boundaries’ around positive relationships, but maybe some other readers are, and would be willing to comment?


Marcial Losada 27 October 2009 - 9:35 pm

The interesting thing about this discovery, Bridget, is that it wasn’t made out of my work with orchestras, but with business teams. Furthermore, not “soft” business teams, but the hardest you could think of: at BHP Billiton copper mining operations in Chile.

Actually, the data I gathered doing consulting with them was preceded by work I did previously in the U.S. where I worked with teams from information technology and car manufacturing. It was then that I was startled to realize that the top teams had a much greater focus on the emotional field than “orientation” to the task. Not that they didn’t do their tasks; on the contrary, they didn’t “worry” about it. It wasn’t a “pre-occupation” but an occupation. The worst teams were worried, pre-occupied with their tasks, generating emotional fields that were quite restrictive, because there was a lot of fear. Contrating with that, the prevailing emotion in the best teams was enthusiasm. The analyses we did on these data was quite sophisticated: we used something we called “eigensystem analysis,” that we derived from the Perron-Frobenius theorem with the help of mathematicians from the University of Michigan. I remember when I first looked at this data, I could hardly believe my eyes, because it was so so cunterintuitive.

I haven’t published these results yet, because I decided to write about them in my forthcoming book instead. I believe the impact these findings will have in the business world required a wider audience than an academic paper–which I learned is THOROUGHLY read, on average by seven people. Many people may cite you, but not all of them read the whole paper carefully, as I am sure you are aware.

Marcial Losada 27 October 2009 - 10:48 pm

I forgot to comment on your questions about what in the car would be the emotional field. You suggested oil, or better still the gas. I believe you are quite on target, because the emotional field is about energy, movement. Of course being about movement, we would have to add the wheels and the motor; in summary the rest of the car to complete the 95% required. And we have to keep in mind, that the key, little as it is, is vital to start the car.

Analogies aside, the emotional field is generated by the postivity/negativiy ratio. When I look at the actual time series of the teams that I observe it becomes patently clear the the P/N ratio over time is an oscillatory pattern, a vibration. Hence, energy.

There is a fascinating sudy by Dr. grazyna Rajkowska with chronic depressive patients who loose cerebral mass in the prefrontal cortex and hypothalamus. It turns out that the average chronic depresive has a P/N ratio of 0.5 (two negatives for every positive). I discovered a mathematical function that I call “gamma function” which predicts a 30% loss of cerebral mass in chronic depressives. These prediction was corroborated by Dr. Rajkowska who measures the loss quite precisely using laser interferometry.

In my view, the explanation goes back to Einstein formula relating energy to mass. To act on the cerebral mass we need energy (or lack of it to feed those cells). If this is so, we should be able to predict the opposite effect: a gain instead of a loss if the P/N ratio is aboube the Losada line. Richie Davidson did a famous study on Tibetan monks doing loving-kindness meditation whose P/N ratio is 4:1. The gamma function for that ratio is 30%, but this time is a gain, not a loss. Richie discovered that gamma synchrony in the monks is increased by about 30%. Gamma waves are the fastest (higher frequency, hence higher enrgy) and they connect different parts of the cerebral hemisphere which makes creativity and intuition available to us. This might be the explanation at the brain activity level of Barb’s findings that P/N broadens our though-action repertoires.

Bridget 31 October 2009 - 7:12 am


Thank you very much for writing such detailed responses, they have added greatly to our understanding of the P/N ratio and the benefits of positive emotions – the gain in cerebral mass is a very exciting discovery, and as you say, illustrates the broaden-and-build theory very clearly. I was particularly interested in what you said about energy and about the oscillatory pattern. Oscillation gives me the impression of equal and opposite forces (1:1), but as you have shown, positive must outweigh the negative by at least 3:1. I wonder what switches the negative to positive and vice versa.

I had a look for Dr Rajkowska’s paper – sadly I found the scientific terminology used overwhelming. That might explain why, on average, papers are only read thoroughly by 7 people. Plus it would help if they were easily available outside academia ;-> It’s a tricky one isn’t it, there’s an art to being able to explain science in a way that the ordinary man or woman in the street can understand, whilst at the same time maintaining the scientific rigour.

I wonder whether, if one has lost brain mass due to depression, it can be re-gained when the depression is overcome?

Whilst I was looking at Richie Davidson’s work, I came across a reference to Hutcherson, Seppala and Gross (2008) – ‘Loving-Kindness Mediation increases social connectedness’, which nicely completes the circle. What is interesting is that the visualisation they used was only 7 minutes long, which must be do-able by the vast majority of people, even the very busy ones. It strikes me that to begin to practice LKM one must already be motivated to put others first, so I’m trying to see how it could be used in organisations which are by and large political systems and where the emphasis, more often than not, is on ‘what’s in it for me’.

Congratulations on the book BTW- I’m very much looking forward to reading it – when will it be published?


Marcial Losada 31 October 2009 - 1:28 pm

Your question about oscillation being in 1:1 ratio is wonderful. You’ll have a 1:1, equally opposing forces, if the pattern were strictly periodic. But when the P/N is within the Losada Zone, its pattern is not periodic (it cannot be decomposed with Fourier or harmonic analysis). You need to use nonlinear dynamics. When we do this, we find that the pattern has complex order (complexor dynamics as I call it–mathematicians call it “chaos,” one of those words that says exactly the opposite of what they mean). Low performing teams interaction patterns can be analyzed with Fourier analysis which is a linear technique, their patterns are less complex. High performing teams require nonlinear dynamics to understand their pattern of interaction. Fourier is not enough for them. This was one of the most beautiful discoveries I made. It also has enourmous implications for the training of teams. If you use linear models and linear thinking you are not going to be able to generate sustainable change; teams will go back to their old patterns.

If you are interested in Dr. Rajkowska findings and my predictions regarding those discoveries, I can send you the e-amil interchange I had with her. Send an e-mail to my profile site (just click on my name or photo above).

The plasticity of the brain is amazing. Yes, depressives can recover what they lose. thank goodness for that!.

I love your final comment. Yes, until we change the “what is in for ME?” for “what is in for US?” we will be stuck in mediocrity. We never truly find ourselves unless we find ourselves in others. That’s why one of the critical balances in my model is that between self and other: Dissolving the “I” in the WE. It is worth noting that the “I” is not lost in the WE. The WE is its natural container.


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