Workplace Relationships; the lifeblood of Culture and Engagement

Team culture and engagement drive productivity

Many companies struggle and fail in their efforts to implement effective ways to improve their corporate culture and employee relations. But while engagement and experience continue to be hot topics (with countless reports and studies on how and why organizations should improve), how does an organization actually go about achieving a purposeful culture that boosts engagement, morale, loyalty, and productivity?

The truth is that while salary, benefits, and other perks are important elements of any job, they are transcended by the relationships employees have with their co-workers and supervisors. These partnerships and connections drive the company culture and—by association—the passion, commitment, and engagement.

Workplace relationships are a game-changer in business today...

...and it's a game worth winning.

Why is engagement important?

A simple internet search for employee engagement will return many studies and surveys trying to analyze and quantify it. For example, some of the more recent and commonly used statistics include:

  • Approx. 67% of the US workforce is still disengaged at a cost of nearly $2 trillion annually (yes, that's Trillion with a T). 1
  • The top 2 concerns for HR (according to Gartner) are Leadership Development and Organizational Culture 2
  • Companies with engaged employees outperform those without by 147% in EPS. 3

All those numbers definitely put into perspective the argument for improving employee engagement, but quite simply, the bottom line is— it's good for the bottom line.

The phrase on the right (attributed to Peter Drucker) is often used to express how the working environment and atmosphere are much more important to an organization than its corporate game plan or blueprint.

Competitors can copy your products, services, and strategy, but it is your culture that creates competitive differentiation

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast"

How do workplace relationships affect this?

Poor working relationships are a major source of inefficiency in most organizations.

  • Managers spend 18% - 26% of their time dealing with workplace relationship issues. 5
  • Employees spend nearly three hours a week dealing with conflict. 6

Dr. Dan Dana, president of Mediation Training Institute International, says, "Over 65% of performance problems result from strained relationships between employees—not from deficits in individual employees' skill." Poor workplace relationships lead to lower morale, higher stress, increased absenteeism, and decreased quality of work. All too often, it also leads to high levels of staff turnover or, in extreme cases, HR intervention and/or litigation. Yet most relationship issues can easily be avoided, and you can actually develop a culture where everybody is intent on making it better for each other.

Workplace relationships are a pivotal part of any company culture. You can aspire to have an innovative, customer-focused, control-based, or other types of culture, but there must be employee buy-in from all employees as a team. There must also be trust among the employees, and they must feel free to discuss it before it can become the corporate way of life. Your product or service can make you a hit, but it's your people that make you a success.

What can we do to improve workplace relationships?

Good workplace relationships are not just about being friendly and helpful to your colleagues, although this should be pivotal in all facets of the workplace. An organization becomes an even better place to work with the following:

Make Individuals Feel Valued

The American Psychological Association (APA) carried out a study a few years ago showing that 93% of employees who feel valued at work said they are motivated to do their best. When people feel valued, their self-esteem increases dramatically leading to new levels of performance. Throughout history, very few important people suffered from low self-esteem.

We make people feel valued by acknowledging their needs and adopting a "does that work for you" attitude. Treat your colleagues as they want to be treated, not as you want to be treated, and never presume to know how they want to be treated. None of us come with an F1 key or instruction booklet. Thus, it is important to find out the needs of the individual and what makes them tick. Find out if they like to work alone or in a team. Do they prefer precise direction or freedom to be creative? Would they rather be recognized publicly or with a personal thank-you? Simple considerations like these can create a great sense of self-worth, and when we grow the self-worth of the employee, we grow the self-worth of the business.

It doesn't cost anything in terms of time or money, nor does it in any way diminish your own efforts. If you and I both have a candle but only mine is lit, I can light yours from mine and we now have double the light without taking anything away from my candle.

Feedback and Openness

Great managers, and others in positions of leadership, understand the importance of proactive, constructive feedback and use it to the mutual benefit of all parties. For managers, it is a way of letting employees know to what extent they are furthering the objectives of the business and it helps build trust. Without feedback, people are blind and will work on their own assumptions of how they are performing to meet business needs.

For employees, it presents an opportunity to discuss their needs, perceptions, and concerns in the workplace or about a particular topic. And, when they feel open enough to discuss these with their manager or colleagues, we have the essence of a great working relationship.

But giving feedback in an open and non-threatening or criticizing manner can be tough at times. It's not always a question of being honest, but one of being honest skillfully. The trick is to understand first and respond second. Ironically, managers or employees who are blunt, direct, and straight-talking often close relationships down and disconnect from those with whom they are trying to connect. The more unapproachable you are, the less effective you are likely to be. People will not want to talk to you and you will not be getting relevant information or feedback.

When giving feedback, either initiating it or responding to something someone has said, you have to recognize that in almost every situation the actions and/or behaviors make sense to the person with whom you are speaking. If you can state facts—rather than opinions—hear the other person's needs, verify that you both understand the situation, and then invite a collaborative solution, all parties will see the end result as a win-win situation.

In a culture where employees are receptive and actually look forward to receiving feedback, they are also inclined to start giving feedback. They begin to feel open to talk freely about their needs, perceptions, and concerns in the workplace and are very receptive to new ideas. Thus, the cycle continues—openness is a critical part of the working relationship and feedback has become a two-way street.

Manage Conflict and Differences

Workplace conflict and dysfunction can consume upward of 25% of a manager's time and 7% of an employee's day. It is another productivity killer and directly impacts the company's bottom line. Yet, the vast majority of conflict is not caused by employee differences but in how they are managed.

Individuals and teams inherently have different wants, ideas, and motivators, but when managed effectively these differences can become complementary to each other and facilitate a common synergy. Conflict is NOT the inevitable outcome of differences and as Steven Covey stated, "Strength lies in differences, not in similarities."

One simple tip to help avoid differences becoming conflict is to never argue with perception. Similar to what was said about feedback, the first thing to do is listen and try to understand why the other person feels the way they do. It is likely you don't agree with them but by first showing empathy you have diffused a potential situation and both parties can start to seek a joint resolution.

Rather than jump in with a clumsy defensive response such as, "Yeah but, it wasn't me," or "That's not," take a deep breath, replay the question quickly in your mind and answer in a manner that invites clarity. Responding with, "How would you," or, "Why do you think," immediately signifies that you are interested in hearing what ideas they have for finding a solution. A potential conflict has now been shifted into an opportunity to move forward together in a win-win mindset.

In a culture where the sharing of different ideas is encouraged, there is great potential for teaching and learning from each other. Differences can be harnessed as part of team-building exercises and can frequently lead to innovation.

Final thoughts

If we could all make each other feel valued, provide feedback in an open manner, and turn differences into opportunities rather than conflict, we have the ingredients for great workplace relationships.

  • Taking people to new levels of belief will lead to new levels of performance.
  • Embrace feedback, but choose your words carefully and learn to close your mouth before someone else wants to.
  • To manage differences, remember, it's not that one viewpoint is right and the other is wrong, it's that both matter.

It's not always easy and we all have unique needs, traits, and nuances. But if employees, managers—and the organization as a whole—can spend more time on the human side of the business, engagement, and productivity will soar.



  4. Thomas, K. (n.d.) White Paper: Making Conflict Management a Strategic Advantage. CPP. Retrieved from