Successful and happy business team

 As anyone who has watched “The Office” or worked in one will attest, workplace relationships can be minefields of misunderstanding. But there is  more at stake than those mouldy leftovers are in the back of the refrigerator. Prior research has recognized employee relationships as a strategic management resource, on a par with finance, knowledge, experience  and organizational structure. A new study from Texas McCombs proposes another benefit to strong workplace relationships: They strengthen organizational resilience, helping businesses weather hard times.

But top management would do well to recognize that such relationships don’t necessarily happen on their own, says co-author Caroline Bartel, professor of management. In fact, the attention top executives pay to employee relationships plays out at every level of the organization. “How can an organization as a system be better hardwired to help promote, support, and fan the flames of relationship building?” she says. “It starts with leadership recognizing and saying that relationships are strategically not just relevant but highly important.”

In a recent paper, Bartel and co-author Kevin Rockmann of George Mason University have proposed a new framework for understanding “attentional infrastructure” around employee relationships. They contrast three patterns of management attention to relationships and how each pattern affects the handling of crises: advocacy, antipathy, and indifference.


In workplaces where leaders advocate for the importance of relationships — for example, by including co-worker relations in performance evaluations — people collaborate closely on standing teams. Employees can manage their emotions and discuss their differences safely without causing long-lasting friction.

“It’s precisely that kind of engagement that is the linchpin when crisis or adversity hits,” Bartel says. “It’s the ability to ask: What are the hard problems? What are things that we’re doing wrong that we could do differently?”


In offices where managers view relationships with antipathy, performance matters; relationships don’t. Executives view relationships as a distraction or hindrance to getting work done. They would rather workers share ideas with centralized authority than with one another.

Resolving conflicts is not a priority, and any positive connections between employees happen accidentally, from natural rapport. When employees advance in the organization, they see it as a personal win not aided by relationships.

When adversity strikes, these organizations are often resource deprived. They are  less able to share information and cooperate on broader goals, creating obstacles to moving through tough times.


Indifference is the most common attention pattern, Bartel says — and the deadliest, because workers get mixed messages from management. Indifferent organizations have a fragmented approach. Some units have a strong sense of unity and intentional communication, while others have distrust and cliques. Fragmentation leads teams to incorrect assumptions about what to expect from other teams.

There might be a surface-level buzz about the importance of good working relationships, but it is not backed up in practice, Bartel says. “There are so many different issues that have to be on a leader’s strategic radar, and I don’t think internal relationships are top of mind for a good proportion of companies.”

Leaders who want to build resilience in their organizations need to overcome indifference and proactively advocate for strong relationships, the paper concludes. “Even if you have the resources and structures in place to facilitate information flow, it comes to a grinding halt if people aren’t actually willing to talk to each other,” Bartel says. “At the end of the day, people still have to work together to get all of this done.”



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