Home All Relational Coordination: Learning, Not Blame

Relational Coordination: Learning, Not Blame

written by Kathryn Britton 9 April 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Another Life Saved

Today, work is highly interdependent.  If you go in for surgery, your outcome will depend on the surgical team, the recovery room team, the in-patient care team, as well as dieticians, Xray technicians, phlebotomists, and so on. If you’re enjoying an iPhone app, it got to your iPhone after going through programmers, testers, technical writers, market managers, user-experience designers, translators, customer service representatives, and so on. Work requires many different kinds of expertise.  This means that we don’t have complete control over the quality of our work outcomes.

So what happens when something goes wrong? Where is the focus? Are people pointing fingers, or are they asking questions and figuring out what they can learn? Dr. Jody Gittell of Brandeis University argues that joint problem-solving (which can start with not derogating failures) is related to the extent of the high-quality communication at the company.

The Need for High-Quality Communication

In her 2003 description of a theory of relational coordination, Dr. Gittell argues that highly interdependent work is most effective when conducted in an environment characterized by high-quality communication and high-quality relationships.

  • High-quality communication is frequent, timely, accurate, and facilitates joint problem-solving, rather than blame.
  • High-quality relationships are characterized by shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect.

But effective coordination can be hindered by local goals that may eclipse shared goals, differences in status that undermine mutual respect, lack of knowledge about each others’ tasks, lack of understanding about who needs to be informed when something changes. All of these are opportunities for improvement in the way an organization functions.

So, What Happens When Things Go Wrong?

Organizations that achieve high levels of reliability do so by learning from failures. What enables some organizations to learn from failures, while others engage in blame and avoidance of blame?

Dr. Gittell and Dr. Abraham Carmeli from Bar-Ilan University in Israel studied the relationships between high quality relationships, psychological safety, and learning from failure. Psychological safety is the perception that you can speak up about something going wrong or report a mistake without fear of harm or embarrassment.

In the first study, they surveyed about 100 participants in finance, electronics, and software industries. In the second study, they surveyed 128 graduate students in Israel who also had full-time jobs in a variety of industries. Both studies showed that learning from failures is more likely when people feel psychologically safe. People are more likely to feel psychologically safe when they experience high-quality relationships characterized by shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect. Gittell and Carmeli also showed in the second study that the reason that high-quality relationships lead to learning from failures is because people feel psychologically safe.

Ways to Build High-Quality Relationships

High-quality relationships are thus important to the quality, efficiency, and reliability of highly interdependent work. As with motivation and engagement, organizations cannot directly cause high-quality relationships to occur, but they can establish conditions that make them more likely. When leaders of an organization, for example, understand that psychological safety makes it more likely that an organization will become more reliable by learning from failures, they can work on establishing conditions of safety. When they understand that high-quality relationships are characterized by shared goals, they can find ways to help people understand how their individual tasks contribute to the overarching goals of the organization.

In her discussion of relational coordination, Gittell talks about the roles of 1) boundary spanners, 2) supervisors, and 3) routine in the formation of high-quality relationships within an organization.

Boundary Spanner?

Boundary Spanner?

1) Boundary spanners are people whose working relationships go across organizational boundaries. They are often responsible for transferring information between their own groups and the outside world. Gittell argues that good boundary spanners have relational skills that help them read emotions and respond to contextual cues. Thus, in addition to moving information across the boundaries, they can effectively influence the outside world on behalf of their organizations and influence their own organizations to accept external demands. Effective boundary spanners tend to have contact with many people inside and outside of their groups. They move across physical spaces and talk with many people, thereby contributing to shared goals and knowledge. Their efforts contribute to connections based on mutual respect among participants in different groups.

2) Supervisors with small spans of control — relatively few people to supervise — are more likely to manage with coaching and feedback than through autocratic decisions. Supervisors with relational skills add value by building connections not only with the people they supervise, but also among the people they supervise. For example, in their feedback, they can help participants understand how they contribute to shared goals and given them greater shared knowledge about each others’ work.

3) Routines are a way to capture knowledge gained from previous experiences. According to Gittell, “By using routines to codify best practices, individual capabilities can be transformed into organizational cababilities.” She also shows how routines can become facilitators of connection because they help people understand how their tasks fit into the whole and how other people’s tasks also contribute, thus building shared knowledge.

Boundary spanners, supervisors, and routines are some examples of organizational structures that can impact high-quality relationships among individuals and groups, and thus have an impact on the reliability, quality, and effectiveness of the coordinated efforts involved in just about every aspect of organizational life.


Gittell, J. H. (2003). A theory of relational coordination. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton & R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 279-295). San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Carmeli, A. & Gittell, J. (2009). High-quality relationships, psychological safety, and learning from failures in work organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 709–729.

Gittell, J. H. (2009). High Performance Healthcare: Using the Power of Relationships to Achieve Quality, Efficiency and Resilience. New York: McGraw Hill.

Gittell, J. H. (2005). The Southwest Airlines Way. New York: McGraw Hill.

Another Life Saved courtesy of SarahMcD ?
Photos from a pinhole camera courtesy of Plutor
Mum Scaling a Cow Gate
courtesy of magnusfranklin
Concept of Operations, Use Cases to capture Work Scenarios courtesy of Ivan Walsh

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Kathryn Britton 16 April 2010 - 10:18 am

This morning I listened to Tom Cox on blog radio talking on trust.
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/tom-on-leadership/2010/04/16/teams-and-trust (I don’t know how long it will be available).

His first guest was Steve Balzac, who had 4 points very related to Dr. Gittell’s work.
Don’t motivate by fear
Build autonomy through supportive structures
Build affiliation / relatedness
Build a climate of competence by reminding people of successes

Through this, build a team where members can give and receive help.

His second guest, Elizabeth Sears, talked about building trust through communication. Her three summary points were the three deadly sins of communication —

Assuming meaning instead of exploring and getting it into the open
Failing to listen
Ignoring nonverbal communication

His third guest, Aneil Mishra, talked about the ROCC of trust — that is, that trust is based on
R = Reliability
O = Openness
C = Competence
C = Compassion

These elements are described in the book he published with his wife, Trust is Everything: Become the Leader Others will Follow

I thought these were all excellent points. Listen in, if it’s still available.


Jeremy McCarthy 17 April 2010 - 10:35 pm

Thanks Kathryn,

I like the concept of “psychological safety” which is also applied in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. This stuff isn’t the kind of thing we usually think about teaching (in schools nor in workplace training programs) but there are teachable skills and strategies for high quality communication and relationships that should be shared to create this kind of culture. Articles like this help!

Kathryn Britton 19 April 2010 - 9:38 am

Jeremy, Thanks for the link to Crucial Conversations. It’s all related to the question of managing conflict. People often have an intellectual realization that conflict is useful — that it keeps us out of Group Think. But at the same time, they have a gut feeling that conflict is hurtful and to be avoided. So how do we find the happy medium? Psychological safety certainly comes into it.


Jeremy McCarthy 20 April 2010 - 9:38 pm

Kathryn–“safe conflict”? Interesting idea to explore what that would look like. Could be a way to get the benefits of conflict without the adversity.

Kathryn Britton 22 April 2010 - 3:05 pm


Is safety an attribute of the conflict or of the environment in which it occurs?

In their book, Developing Management Skills, Whetten and Cameron make a distinction between people-focused conflict and issue-focused conflict. People-focused conflict often becomes emotional disputes highly colored with moral indignation. Issue-focused conflict appears to be more open to win-win negotiation. They cite Messmer’s research, that managers polled with the question, “In general, what percentage of management time is wasted on resolving personality conflicts?” the average answer is 18%. They say, “Research has shown that people-focused conflicts threaten relationships, whereas issue-based conflicts enhance relationships.” (p. 382) I think people can learn to recognize the difference and choose ways to protect themselves from people-focused conflict and lift the barriers a bit for issue-focused conflict.

That brings to mind Edward de Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats — where he recommends that members of a group take turns playing different roles that he characterizes by different colored hats. One is the Black Hat who points out weaknesses in ideas. There’s also the Red Hat who gives the emotional (possibly angry) point of view. So if the group agrees that it is someone’s turn to disagree, then it becomes safer to do so.

My husband reminds me that after the Bay of Pigs, JFK felt the group had gotten into GroupThink. He asked his brother, RFK, to take the role of devil’s advocate in future tense discussions.

I don’t suppose RFK said to people he disagreed with, “What rock did you crawl out from under?” I’ve heard that kind of thing said in group disagreements, and it definitely doesn’t lead to safety.

Something to think about.


Kim Murphy-Stewart 2 December 2010 - 4:37 pm

Thank you for your reflections in this article. What we are undertaking as action researchers is how to demonstrate the potential of positive coordination in markets – particularly in horticulture and in cultural kinship development through a programme called whanau ora. In this to breakdown the risk averse practice of social workers particulalrly in child protection.

We have used these ideas in the name of our company. It also draws on my wife Jeanette’s experience as an executive coordinator where her task was to coordinate competing market players in an industry that was a free for all among the market players. Coordination through communication and joint agreement about standards of practice without imposing regulations of law. What her expereince proved that there was an improvement in market quality because of the voluntary action of coordinated market players.

It also seems to fit with our discussions of wicked problems and communities of practice. BUT that is almost a research project on it own.


Kim Murphy-Stewart


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