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Employee Experience - some workplace relationship advice

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett May 21, 2024
Although not often discussed, the quality of employee work relationships are among the top indicators of positive business outcomes. Esther Perel, Culture Amp’s External Advisor, shared her thoughts last week at the company’s conference.


Never under-estimate the importance of your relationships at work. Or as Esther Perel, Psychotherapist, Author and Culture Amp External Advisor, put it at the Employee Experience platform vendor’s ‘Culture First Global’ virtual conference last week:

The quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life, and it’s the same at work. If you’re miserable working with your colleagues, no amount of pay etc will help. In large part, you love your job to the extent you love the people.

Perel is not the only one saying this either. Lynda Gratton is Professor of Management Practice at London Business School and Founder of advisory practice HSM. She has been talking about how vital work friendships are in personal resilience terms for a few years now. Research from Gallup likewise found that having a best friend at work is strongly linked to positive business outcomes, such as profitability and employee retention.

But Perel takes the thought a step further. She points out that while most organizations are good at handling people-related processes, the same is not true of relationship issues:

Relationships are based on paradoxes so there’s often not an immediate answer...It’s about holding polarities, which is a problem that’s challenging for most companies. In relationships, it’s about ‘how can I listen to you describe what happened last night when my story is completely different? How can they co-exist?’ The degree of subjectivity is difficult so ‘what is truth?’ takes on a different meaning. Companies struggle here as they’re good at technical problems, such as hiring. But unlike technical problems, relationships bring in emotions, and emotions drive it all.

Telling each other stories

One of the most effective ways of building positive relationships, Perel believes, is via people telling each other personal stories. This is because stories frequently lead to meaningful conversations, which “breed connection”. To promote this kind of sharing in meetings, she uses story cards that include questions (which she developed herself). She explains:

A CPO [Chief People Officer] once said to me, ‘the only thing that matters is that I can get people to have important conversations’, and that’s the crux…In a team meeting, you may not remember everyone’s name, but you do remember their stories. It changes the meeting, and the conversation…it elicits the meaningful conversations that people want to be having at work.

One of the “biggest challenges that we don’t talk about” in terms of relationship-building though, she says, is that colleagues no longer have enough contact with each other due to remote and hybrid working:

What stands in the way is that we don’t spend enough time together. If you don’t see people apart from in tiny boxes occasionally, how can you build trust and relationships that connect with performance?

Making employees feel valued

This situation is also not helped, Perel believes, by the at times polarised views between leaders and the rest of the workforce on company values and priorities. She explains:

Leadership needs to recognize the reality of the workforce and acknowledge they’re not just lucky to have a job. Everyone’s interdependent here. It’s not a chicken and egg – it’s a circular issue. You can start at any point and see a loop. So, what’s a loop? A lot of people have been laid off and others are being asked to do their jobs as the desire for outcomes hasn’t stopped, which means there’s pressure on those that remain…You need people to feel valued to do a job well and it won’t motivate them if you say ‘you’re lucky to have a job’. They’ll do the minimum, but you want high-performing staff.

To make employees feel valued, it is important to acknowledge how they feel about a given situation, treat them like mature adults and make it clear they are entitled to loyalty and respect. Perel points to leadership approaches during the pandemic as an example of how to do it. At that time, the focus was less on performance and outcomes and more on providing “meaning, belonging and identity”, she says.

Another important consideration though is that “compassion and accountability, empathy and reason” are not mutually exclusive. Perel explains:

There’s a notion that showing authority takes away someone else’s agency, authenticity etc. But it’s an interesting assumption…that relationships are all about empathy. Relationships are systems, interrelated parts, and one part affects the other. Responsibility and accountability are not the same as blame and shame… People confuse being authoritative with authoritarianism…but you can’t have a thriving system or individual if you don’t have an integration of responsibility and empathy. Typically, they’re genderized, but both qualities are essential to any relational system.

To illustrate the point, she cites the case of an employee who comes to their line manager to inform them that they are behind in completing a task. While the manager’s first reaction may be annoyance that the employee isn’t pulling their weight, in reality, by sharing what is happening, the staff member is engaging in an “act of accountability”.

Taking and owning responsibility

As a result, Perel says:

If you want to create psychological safety, you say, ‘I appreciate that’ and ask them to tell you earlier if something isn’t working…young people may find that difficult, so ask ‘how’s it going? Are you struggling? You say you’re OK, but your eyes are saying something else.’ You may find there’s a huge piece of information they haven’t got, so no wonder they can’t do it.

The next step is to ask the employee if they have considered what might help to get back on track, not least as it could help you identify “systemic leakage”. The worst thing to do though is simply take over and do it yourself as no one learns that way. Perel explains:

People talk about fight, flight and freeze, but there’s also fix. Fix comes from the reptilian parts of our brain to make it go away as ‘I can’t stand you being in this situation’.

There may also be times when difficult conversations are required too though and should be considered an act of caring:

You can ask someone, ‘How direct would you like me to be as there are some things I want to say? I care about you, and I think there are some areas where you’re selling yourself short'. Reiterate that you’re saying this when you could say nothing, ‘But then you’d think it’s fine when it’s not’. I’m not saying people will thank you for it, but you will do the right thing by them.

This is because when managers state their expectations in this way, they are showing respect for the other person and that they want them to improve. “Unexpressed expectations” are a very different beast though. Perel explains:

Unexpressed expectations are often pre-meditated resentments. That is, I expect you to do something that you don’t know I want you to do, but I’ll be resentful if you don’t do it…It happens all the time – people want others to take responsibility for something they’re responsible for, so they deflect it. But it starts with you taking responsibility and owning that responsibility in a system that has many interrelated parts.

My take

The importance of workplace relationships is routinely under-estimated. But supporting managers, employees and colleagues to have the conversations that matter is key to personal, professional and business success.

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