This post originally appeared on Forbes.
So much of work can feel transactional, cold, even mind-numbing. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As Dr. Robert Waldinger, professor of psychiatry, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, author of The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, and a Zen master, said in an interview, “Maybe you don’t like making the widgets, but maybe you like the person you’re next to making the widgets. And that can really make a difference.” He contends that the people who are happiest and healthiest have warm connections with others.
“Many of us spend more of our waking life at work than we spend anywhere else,” Waldinger explains. “So what is really a tragedy is to treat work as though it’s just something you get through so you can live the rest of your life, because it is much of your life. That artificial division is something that’s worth really looking at and calling into question.”
Waldinger acknowledges that some business leaders may not think it’s their job to help employees have good relationships, but those relationships affect both worker productivity and public relations. “If you want to be on the list of good places to work,” he stresses, “if you want worker wellbeing—including worker connections and happiness at work, particularly in the younger generations who care about the culture of the workplace they’re in—you can say it’s not your job but at your peril.”
Citing the famous Gallup poll question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” Waldinger notes the 30 percent of people who have friends at work report greater wellbeing on the job, produce higher quality work by their managers’ evaluation and are less likely to be injured at work or to leave their jobs—and in today’s marketplace, that’s a boon. Here are four approaches to help leaders foster stronger relationships at work.
Model Personal Vulnerability And Sharing
Leaders who demonstrate care for employees set the tone for what’s permissible, appropriate and expected in the work culture. Leaders can start with something simple, Waldinger suggests, like sharing photos of a child or pet and describing something special or funny about them. For example, the first few minutes of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s staff meetings are used to highlight individual staff members who speak about things in their personal lives that they’d like their colleagues to know.
According to Waldinger, as their relationships have deepened over time, Surgeon General Murthy’s team members have begun sharing not just exciting things, but also the struggles they’re having or the issues they’re facing. Exposing a little personal vulnerability is crucial to team building, says Waldinger. “It’s not just keeping up the kind of game face that we put on for each other all day long—that’s distancing. You don’t get close to somebody when they’re just their brightest and shiniest self all the time.”
Reduce The Impact Of Bad Managers
Difficulty with a supervisor is the most common source of workplace dissatisfaction and turnover, Waldinger notes. Although not every incidence of dislike or interpersonal friction can be prevented, he says it’s incumbent on leaders to put practices in place to ensure that “supervisors essentially have some modicum of interpersonal skills to treat employees with respect, dignity and transparency and to encourage conflict resolution.” Enhancing your organization’s recruitment, hiring and promotion processes will help weed out managers who behave disrespectfully; providing subsequent training can strengthen the combination of skills managers need to keep employees engaged.
Development areas include helping managers understand how disrespectful, authoritarian or passive-aggressive conduct damages workplace relationships and why it’s worth the effort to shift away from these harmful behaviors. Waldinger recommends holding small group sessions with a skilled facilitator who can help managers articulate the advantages of their methods and then explore the downsides; managers can also role-play to examine the impact of their negative behaviors and imagine how they would feel and respond if they were treated the way they treat employees.
Make Plans For Conflict
Conflict occurs in every workplace, and when it’s handled badly, employees may be turned off by blowups or power plays. Just as damaging, though, is conflict that goes unaddressed and underground. This often happens when leaders are unwilling to engage in what seem like overly emotional situations or think it’s the responsibility of subordinates to work things out on their own. Real conflict resolution remains rare because it’s neither intuitive nor obvious but takes skill and practice.
“What happens in the heat of the moment—the emotion that happens in a conflict,” explains Waldinger, “can prompt us to handle it in ways that aren’t helpful—in ways that shoot us in the foot, that operate against our own interest.” Focused trainings can help people learn to tolerate the emotional content as well as resolve the business issues. Beneficial topics include how to have a conversation when you’re angry or someone is angry with you and whether it’s important to win this argument right now or there’s a long-term relationship or business goal that has higher priority.
Show Respect, Even During Bad Times
Waldinger disapproves of the current resurgence of “bossism” that tolerates and even encourages leaders to alienate workers in favor of stricter workplace policies and higher efficiency. “Good luck to you in terms of how your organization’s going to operate,” he says, if your culture is basically unfeeling, without significant communication and includes backbiting and abrupt layoffs. Given the prevalence of online ratings and boomerang hires today, it seems short-sighted to do the most expedient thing rather than investing energy and effort in being as humane as possible under the circumstances.
What really matters, says Waldinger, is making each individual feel seen, even during what might otherwise be a harsh and transactional experience, like a layoff. Leaders should acknowledge that it’s a difficult, uncomfortable situation (without getting maudlin or self-pitying) for each employee who is being let go. For example, he says, in one respectful layoff, leadership called a full staff meeting and kindly and respectfully explained why the layoff was required and what would happen. Leadership also described all the support that was available—from severance to exit interviews to references—so that it was explicitly clear that the employees were not at fault and were still valued as human beings.
Work isn’t always enjoyable, and compensation is supposed to make it tolerable. But if you want engaged, productive employees who stay, then focusing on a culture of relationship is crucial. Applying these four strategies will help improve your employees’ experience so that work becomes something people look forward to and the office is a place where they want to be and do their best.
Onward and upward—