Healthy Relationships: At Work and Outside It

If we're really honest, what most keeps us all up at night? Relationships. Leaders concerned about their team's engagement. Contributors vexed by their manager. Coworkers comparing to one another, angling for more fairness or ways to leverage relationships to get where they want to go. An employee whose experience at home is distracting them at work. When we are unhappy at home, we often think changing work will help (maybe because it seems easier...). Our relationships are all connected. And studies confirm: happiness at home is connected to happiness at work (see the Grant study, 

We have a relationship to work itself – the role it plays in our identity and what it says about us to others. There’s also a relationship between our work and life outside of it. We bring it home with us. Our families are impacted because work and personal lives are inherently intertwined whether we like it or not (one example - Harvard Happiness study). Because the human beings doing the working and the living are whole, no matter how much we compartmentalize. We are all connected.

If relationships at work aren't healthy, we get a lack of trust. Dangerously low morale, high absenteeism and turnover, low innovation. Stalling growth. Disconnection from vision and strategy. Culture, purpose and compelling storytelling are the conduits for relationship information. Relationship quality (the energy of it) is a corporate currency – or, the water flowing through the work ecosystem that allows it to function and grow.

Focusing on or improving symptoms of poor relationship can often look like ripping off the dead part of a leaf and expecting that without water, sunlight, and the right temperature, that the plant will continue to grow. Workplaces are living, dynamic environments filled with living, dynamic people. Even the leader is not the same today as she was yesterday. Every day everyone is changing and adapting. Strategy and plans are set. They are artifacts of the way things get done. But they must be dynamic to work for the people who work for them. Strategy and culture must be inherently evolving in relationship. A plant always needs, and always gives, at once. A plant is always in relationship, sending and responding to its environment, and so are we. 

We are all responsible for our work ecosystems. If relationships are broken or dysfunctional - as we see so often see today with the near obsession over engagement and getting different groups to work together effectively (Millennials and boomers, I'm looking at you) - we can be tempted to focus first on metrics. How we measure these problems to quantify and understand them. How we cover them up using compensation or distraction (more rewards!). How we cut them off quickly so they don’t spread and we don't have to look at them by firing people or ignoring when they choose to leave abruptly. These responses don’t work because they ignore the simple truth that all of us are always in relationship. Altering one part will not change the system in the way we think. Ignoring an unhealthy person, pattern or culture, certainly will. And not for the better.

It starts with our relationship with ourselves. How leaders at every level think and talk to themselves is critical. That's where the seeds of how leaders communicate and interact with others start to grow. Mental models. Mindset. Thoughts are the seeds. Be careful what you sew.

Enough people with similar unhealthy thoughts, behaviours, and patterns create an unhealthy culture. When people work together - even if they don’t start out as aligned as they purported to be in their interview to get the job - they tend to adapt to their environment and assimilate quickly to the prevailing way of thinking, doing and being. It's a psychological fact. The psychological contracts at play are between each individual and their boss, each employee and the organization, employee to employee, and the organization to the outside world (relative to how much members relate to and adopt the company's identity). Working somewhere says something about you. It says something about your values to yourself, to your coworkers, to your friends and family, to your community at large.

Where we work is important. How is even more important. A tree in Sedona operates under different conditions, with different needs, than a tree in the Tundra. We are each of us a tree. Rooted. Reaching. Using a shared system of resources to live and grow. In relationship.

We have forgotten this. We've gotten so good at thinking that what happens here doesn't impact what happens over there. We do it in our societies at large to our natural environments with great ease and alarming disconnection from consequence - all in the name of profit, innovation, and growth. But there is consequence.

So what?

  • Stop thinking about problems at work as isolated. Stop trying to change culture forcibly, to manage people one -directionally, to lead in isolation rather than conversation

  • Know yourself. Take responsibility for yourself. Sharpen your communication skills to learn how to healthily grow within a work ecosystem. That doesn't mean how to write an email or give a great presentation. Those things help - but they must be preceded by understanding why you are there, what the company stands for, why it matters to you, and what you're working towards. We’re already seeing younger generations choosing employers based on values and purpose. It means training yourself to be aware of your mental models and beliefs, and how to work with them constructively. It means learning to listen in a new way- more openly, with more courage, without thinking you know everything and without being injured and defensive when you discover you don't. It means noticing all the data about how others communicate including body language, energy levels, and word choice. It means calibrating to whomever you are connecting with - leading forward together once you've found common ground. It means attuning, not just attaining. It means resonating, not just reasoning. It means learning at every level, not leading from isolation or without real input

  • To understand your culture, look at yourself. How do you feel about it? Whatever you feel and notice is true for you and therefore gives you data. Then a discussion is required to see how that data interacts with others' and with reason-based quantifiable data. The balance of felt experience and reason is the sweet spot for connection, healthy relationship, and business success

  • Be brave enough to ask the hard questions, hear the answers and change. Because lasting successful change comes from within, not from above or even below. It comes from connection to something greater, some personally meaningful future state that compels individuals, alone or in a collection, to choose differently again and again

  • Cultures focused on employee engagement don't always guarantee that engagement will be healthy. Sure, bring yourself to work. But lots of activities at or outside work designed to get employees bonding can be dangerous too. Work is work. Work is not family, but rather a network of allies (see The Alliance). Socializing is important but playful cultures can easily slip into destructive ones. Pressures to drink can destroy an employee's experience - making them less engaged, not more, or engaged in an unhealthy way. Engagement is everyone's responsibility. It must be co-created with boundaries that work for everyone at and outside of work.

  • Connection is everyone's responsibility. It matters because it impacts your ability to get work done - yours, and others. It’s all about balance. Balancing individual needs and preferences. Cultures with no socializing or connection produce alienated employees who may have trouble finding as much meaning in their work and therefore, as much loyalty to it. Most people leave jobs because of a poor connection with their boss or coworkers. That means there must be some communication and healthy connection to keep people engaged. Without proper communication to build healthy trust, we cannot grow.

Each of us is our own hard-working ecosystem, operating within a larger one. Alongside others.

Whether explicit or not, we exchange information about ourselves daily at work. Then we come home and exchange more. A bad day at work can often mean a bad day at home, even if it's not outwardly shared. Managing the emotions of a bad day so your family doesn't sense it, worry or take it on can be exhausting. The same way a bad day at home can have you coming into work depleted before you've even had your morning coffee. It doesn't matter how well you understand the strategy, the financial targets, your development plan, the leadership profile, or the culture and vision at that point. Your ecosystem has a storm brewing and you will not relate to others at work the same way. When you relate differently, you go somewhere different.

It's time to connect in a new way. Communicate in a new way. It starts within ourselves but it is inherently linked to others as well. How do we talk to ourselves? What beliefs do we have? What beliefs are ours and what have we learned from our work environments? What beliefs and behaviours helps us feel good, open up and grow? What help us collaborate healthily and what shuts us down? What holds us back? What are we afraid of? What are we ignoring? What are we choosing to believe that isn't really true? What are we allowing? What are we thinking, doing, feeling, being?

Engagement, turnover, career progression, work life integration (because balance will never come as long as we conceive of work and life as separate and competing) - all these things will work themselves out if we can first address our mindsets, our personal responsibility, and our inherent and enduring condition of being alive and necessarily in relationship.

We are all connected. Improving work, and life, is everyone’s responsibility. It’s your responsibility. You have immense power to make improvements. Let’s get to work.