Quick! What is the one thing . . .

Mike Morrison, Ph.D.

Mike Morrison, Ph.D.

Creating Meaningful Change

May 14, 2022

Quick!  What is the one thing when present represents one of the most enabling forces for employee engagement, productivity and meaning at work?

Here’s a hint:  When absent, it serves as the most significant barrier to employee engagement, productivity and meaning at work?

It’s the relationship. 

We underestimate by some huge margin the importance of relationships in our efforts to create meaning in our organizational lives.

For two decades I have been involved in research on relationships between leaders and employees. The results have been both eye-opening and fascinating. My five journey can be reduced to five basic findings about leader-employee relationships that we better pay attention to:

  • Some form fast – but most don’t.
  • Employees overemphasize their importance.
  • Leaders underestimate their significance.
  • They have a big impact on performance.
  • They are becoming increasingly critical to our effectiveness.

Here’s the bottom line for our organizations. Human capital or resources is useless without relationships – particularly in our fast-paced, global economy. In fact, leaders can be best measured by their ability to create “social capital” – the sum total of all their relationships. It is through this network of relationships that their work is conducted. The undeniable truth is that where there are high levels of trust and mutual understanding between people, you will see enhanced performance. (By the way, it didn’t take a pandemic to reveal our shortcomings in this area.)

Let’s review the 5 findings in more detail:

1.     Some relationship form fast – most don’t. Some relationships form almost automatically but for the most part, relationship building activities are not easy to do (due to differences in style, values, etc.). A root issue is that we fail to fully understand the art of “relating” that is core to relationship building. That’s a mistake. The essence of relating begins with the heightened awareness of others and is fueled by trust-building interactions – such balancing our dialogue with respectful inquiry. As leaders, we need to be relentless relationship builders and be 100 times more deliberate about the “relating” to people.

2.    Employees overemphasize the importance of relationships. It’s a key source of meaning in their lives. Traditionally, the balance of power rests with the boss or those above us. It often goes way beyond the obvious power differences – where the leader controls resources, information, and access to meaningful work. Employees look to the leader for validation of their personal worth to the organization. And that can’t come from an e-mail. It takes face time and a stable relationship for that to occur. Studies consistently point to the lost productivity attributes to ” worrying about the relationship”.

3.  Leaders underestimate the significance of relationships. It is clear that a great deal of interaction is required to explain, reassure, and facilitate actual elements of an employee’s performance. While facilitative-type behaviors are often prescribed as effective strategies for leaders in motivating their employees, the reality is that the broad challenges of the leader’s role and the lack of skill and insight into relationship building serve as formidable barriers. In the heat of the battle, “relating” and the creation of meaning gets lost to the perceived needs to command, control, and communicate.

4.  Relationships facilitate the creation of meaning – which impacts performance. In today’s work environment, organizations are looking more and more for the extra effort and innovation that come from committed employees. The quality of the leader-employee relationship plays a unique and critical role in gaining this commitment. In a study I completed a few years ago, the quality of the leader-employee relationship played a larger role in the employee’s performance than the leader’s ability to employ traditional motivational strategies (e.g., goal alignment, training support, barrier reduction, effective use of reward, etc.). In other words, if the employee feels good about the relationship, they will be more confident in fully investing themselves in the work (e.g., taking reasonable risks, making recommendations, etc.).

5.  Relationships are becoming increasingly critical to our need to create meaning. The world is becoming “de-jobbed” at an accelerating rate due to the increasing role of information technology and the global pressures requiring speed, flexibility, and customization of responses to customer needs. Extra-effort performance responds to these demands by expanding the performance parameters and the role boundaries of the employee. This view offers support to the notion that the relationship between the leader-employee provides a stabilizing effect to the inherent inconsistency of the job of leading in an environment of constant change.

Simply stated, as leaders we need a better understanding of the dynamics of relationship formation and the determination and patience to put them into play.