Approaching Work as a Relationship is the Key to Employee Engagement

Guest Contributorby Jason Lauritsen | Posted | Performance Management

Approaching Work as a Relationship is the Key to Employee Engagement

According to at least one estimate, organizations globally are spending over $7 billion dollars on technology solutions alone in attempts to improve employee engagement. If you estimate the amount of time and resource invested in addition to technology, the number is much bigger.

And yet, Gallup reports that 85% of employees globally are either disengaged or actively disengaged at work. They estimate the impact of this disengagement to be $7 trillion (with a 'T') in lost productivity.

What's wrong with this picture?

A flawed way of thinking about and managing work

While it's a good sign that organizations are investing in employee engagement solutions, what we've been doing isn't working. These solutions primarily try to address surface issues with engagement without dealing with the root cause.

At the heart of why we haven't been able to solve this problem is a flawed way of thinking about and managing work. Most organizations (likely including yours) still treat work as a contract with the employee. You provide pay and benefits in exchange for the employee's time, effort, and allegiance.

Employees don't experience work as a contract, but as a relationship. Here's why @JasonLauritsen
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Most management and human resources systems are designed to ensure employee compliance with the contract. Performance appraisals, job descriptions, policy manuals, and performance improvement plans are all examples of processes designed primarily to make sure the organization is getting their money's worth out of their employees.

We've been managing work this way for the past 100 years or more. There's only one problem. Employees don't experience work as a contract. For them, work is something very different.

When you look for data about what drives employee engagement, the list is always pretty similar regardless of the source.

  • Feeling valued
  • Trust
  • Knowing someone cares
  • Being appreciated

This sounds nothing like a contract. It sounds more like how you'd describe your relationship with your best friend. It seems that decades of employee engagement research have been trying to tell us something incredibly important and simple.

For employees, work is a relationship

And therein lies the problem. Imagine being in a marriage where your spouse rarely shows you or tells you that they love you, but frequently gives you feedback on how well you are (or aren't) fulfilling your marital obligations.

That's not a recipe for a happy marriage, it's a recipe for divorce.

Is it any wonder that employees continue to be disengaged and continue to leave our organizations in search of a better, more fulfilling relationship?

The key to creating a truly engaging workplace is to replace the "work as a contract" approach with one designed to make work feel like a healthy, positive relationship. To accomplish this, we need to replace our attachment to workplace "best practices" of the past with research from psychology, sociology and other disciplines that reveal what makes for a healthy relationship.

When you do, you'll discover that there are key elements that are important to all kinds of relationships. Here are a few examples of how to foster healthier relationships at work:

  • Appreciation - As human beings, we crave acknowledgment and validation. In our relationship with our employer, we need to know that we are seen and our work is noticed. Not just when it's deemed important or when we go above and beyond.
  • Acceptance - To foster a positive work relationship, we must create an experience that makes each person feel accepted and embraced for who they are, not who we wish they were or want them to be.
  • Communication - It should be no surprise that communication is vital to relationships. As humans, when we are in doubt, we assume the worst. It's part of our survival instinct. Anytime an employee is unclear or uncertain, they assume bad things that lead to disengagement and a deteriorating relationship. Healthy relationships require ongoing, open conversation that helps remove uncertainty and replaces it with clarity.
  • Support - When we are in a healthy relationship, we hold each other in positive regard, choosing to see failures by the other as the result of honest mistakes or tough circumstances and not as a character flaw. When you look at your corporate policy manual or your performance appraisal process, does it send a message of positive regard or a signal that you assume employees will try to break the contract?
  • Commitment - A positive relationship also requires reciprocity. Both parties must be truly invested in each other and be willing to work to ensure that the other is happy and satisfied. Commitment is also about how you recognize it and repair the relationship when things go wrong. In the work relationship, we have historically demanded loyalty from employees, but how have you shown it in return?
  • Time - When I asked my then seven-year-old daughter how she knows if someone loves her, one of the first things she said was "they spend time with me." Even as a child, we understand that we make time for what's important. Time is the currency of relationships. It's why regular one-on-one meetings and organized social gatherings during work time are so important.

Work is a relationship, not a contract

That statement bears repeating. Far too many employees today are trapped in a dysfunctional work relationship. Only by designing work to feel more like a relationship can we finally create the kind of work experiences that allow human beings to truly thrive.

Want to learn more? Join me for the continuing education series, "Unlocking High Performance"

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Unlocking high performance is a journey and we're here to help you take the next step. Visit this page to get all the details, start exploring the resources available, and register for a workshop near you!

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How To Cultivate Performance and Remove Barriers to Growth

Learn why fixing performance management requires starting with a fresh mindset about human performance.

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