Can a focus on relationships at work help improve well-being and performance?

“Workplaces offer the opportunity to be in community with others and experience being part of an inter-connected whole” – MONICA WORLINE & JANE DUTTON (2017)

Many of us spend more time at work, often with colleagues, than we do with our family and friends. Therefore, spending time on making positive and deep connections with those we spend so much time with surely makes sense.

Those organisations who create a workplace where relationships between colleagues can thrive are likely to have lower incidences of burnout,

“…there is now a consistent and strong body of evidence that a lack of social support is linked to burnout” – ADAM GRANT (2013)

and higher levels of engagement and ideas

“Identification with a group or unit is likely to motivate a group of individuals to engage in collective action to improve the current situation” – WEE & TAYLOR (2018)

But is it that straightforward? And are some interventions that help build a social work environment better than others?

A UK research team, from Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia, examined the kind of interventions that were said to help build good social environments in the workplace. In particular, they were interested in the notion that good social work environments can help well-being and performance.

The research

The researchers conducted a systematic review, examining interventions and social environments in the workplace from four theoretical perspectives:

  1. Perceived organisational support, i.e. an employee’s beliefs that the organisation values their efforts and cares for their well-being;
  2. Organisational climate, i.e. an employee’s perceptions of the social and interpersonal aspects of work, including things such as recognition and relationships;
  3. Social identity, i.e. the extent to which people internalise membership of their team such that it becomes part of their identity; and
  4. Organisational justice, i.e. how fairly employees think decisions are made and how fairly they think they are treated as a result of those decisions.

In respect of well-being, the researchers were primarily focused on psychological well-being which they characterised as:

  • Subjective assessments of satisfaction, such as job satisfaction;
  • Hedonic experiences, such as happiness in getting a promotion; and
  • Eudaimonic wellbeing, such as personal growth through learning and mastering a new skill.

Following a rigorous sifting process, the researchers identified eight studies which met their strict criteria.

The findings

Six of the eight studies referenced specific interventions; and of these six, five looked at the impact on job satisfaction. These included:

  • Dialogue or focus groups;
  • Team-building activity;
  • Participation in improving an appraisal system;
  • Group training followed by individual coaching; and
  • Mentoring to foster collaboration.

Four of the studies found that these interventions led to improvements, namely:

  • Better group cohesion;
  • Better team-working, support and community;
  • More positive perceptions of justice and support; and
  • Improvements in well-being.

Those studies which also examined performance found:

  • Less people said they intended to leave their organisation;
  • More positive reports by managers of employee initiative; and
  • More positive reports by people of their colleagues’ performance.

While the researchers suggest that the findings are promising, they urge caution due to the weak design of many of the studies they examined. Nonetheless, the research suggests that these interventions could have some positive impact on well-being and performance.

“…activities based on increasing the frequency of shared activities between workers can improve worker well-being and performance via improved social environments at work”

Finally, the researchers state that for interventions to have any chance of success the following four conditions need to be in place:

  1. The activities need to be sustained over time;
  2. External facilitation is required;
  3. A variety of complementary activities should be used (formal versus informal); and
  4. Employees should have positive attitudes toward activities.

Implications and ideas

This research has highlighted a big gap. There aren’t many studies which have looked at interventions geared toward improving social relationships in the workplace, and the impact these might have on well-being and performance. Most of the studies examined as part of this research tended to look at one indicator of well-being – job satisfaction. In addition, the organisational contexts are limited – most were in healthcare. Therefore, there may be issues about replicability of the findings, such as they are.

However, as Jorina von Zimmerman and Daniel C Richardson said in their article Synchrony and Signalling,

“Doing something – anything – together at the same time has important pro-social consequences”

With that in mind, here are some ideas for you to consider, on the back of this research:

  1. Understand what difference looks like. If social relationships were better/stronger/more positive, what would that look like? What impact would this have? For the individual? On a team? On organisational performance? On customer satisfaction? Identify where you are trying to get your team or organisation to and by when. Then assess, if you haven’t already, how far or near you are from that goal. Once you understand this, then you can start to build a plan of meaningful interventions which (a) join up (b) make sense to people and (c) happen over a period of time – rather than one-off. This activity is best done with other people rather than on your own.
  2. Decide on the support you need to get maximum impact. As the researchers found, the interventions which seemed to have most success had external facilitation. If you don’t have a database of trusted external, expert facilitators then you could start one now. It doesn’t have to be fancy – something on Excel will do. Buying external facilitation may not, however, always be possible, or indeed appropriate. If budget is an issue then why not use it to develop your own facilitators in-house? One large organisation I worked with did this and then facilitators supported other parts of the organisation. This helped to break down barriers between departments and gave the facilitators increased knowledge about the organisation.
  3. A variety of complementary activities should be used as part of your plan. I’ve said this many times in many different posts – having a mix of formal and informal social activities is really important. More than anything, it allows for people with different work patterns and work styles to participate in a way that works for them. Key to all the interventions, whether they are formal (e.g. classroom based), or informal (e.g. dinner at a local restaurant) is that they are designed in a way to enable people to connect with each other at a deeper level than day-to-day work allows.
  4. Involve your employees in the design and delivery of some interventions. Are there certain interventions that fell flat in the past? Why was that? Alternatively, are there some teams in your organisation who just seem really connected, get on with others and perform well? Find out what it is about those teams that have led to that? What lessons and activities can be shared with other teams? In one organisation I worked with, we identified those ‘star’ teams who had great relationships and performance. Following this, we then worked with those team managers to give them skills to support fellow team managers in other parts of the organisation who were struggling with team relationships and performance. This included the team managers of the high-performing and happy teams facilitating team activities for those not-so-happy teams. This created self-sufficiency in an organisation that had little money for ‘fancy’ stuff or for lots of external support.

And before you do anything, heed the warning of Tom Peters, from his latest book The Excellence Dividend,

If you do NOT have a culture of respect/caring/give-a-shit-ism, applying ‘good’ techniques often makes things worse – more bureacracy, less democracy

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