Rethinking the Workplace Relationship of the Future

Diego Rivera’s The Worker

Isn’t it time to change the dominant stories we’ve been taught about workplace relationships?

They’re old, exhausted and defeating.
They’re based on models of thinking about human motivation and dynamics that have been discredited by modern science. These old stories are steeped in mistrust. They’re hierarchical and parental in nature and based on a belief that the sole motivation for work is monetary.
It’s a story that’s getting harder to sell in an era of dizzying technological speed, complexity and social interconnection. On the critical primacy of social connectivity in the new workplace author Harold Jarche writes, “Creativity will be needed on a large-scale. The key to creativity is diversity – of opinion and options. Connected people can socially create knowledge and most importantly, coordinate action together. This is the incredible potential of the “people” aspect of the Internet of Everything- human connections that scale.”
Today’s mainstream workplace story has little to do with the visionary prognostications that Jarche offers. It’s a story that’s still pervasive and based on ideas about people who are stuck in early 20th century models of the worker as job performer. The old story is kept in place by behemoth organizational processes that keep the artifices of old power arrangements intact, despite overwhelming evidence of their inevitable decline.
But a big part of the old story is based on the fact that most people just don’t understand how human dynamics work. W. Edwards Demings’ well-known quote “the problem with business is that it is afraid of dealing with the business of people,” must be placed within the larger context of the culture that feeds it.
Most people are still afraid of dealing with the “business” of people – and that “business” is mostly based on feelings. Most cultures, in general, still have a fundamental lack of emotional intelligence – and the ramifications of this are widespread.
The failure to understand people, their dynamics and the needs that drive them, is reflected in many of the beliefs that still dominate today’s workplace.
People are primarily motivated by fear
Fear is a valuable motivator
There’s no place for emotions at work
11 Hour Work Days are productive
Work’s not personal
There’s no place for “play” at work
Management needs to control employees
Business needs trump personal needs
Business is a battlefield and the best competitors “win”
Empathy, compassion and vulnerability are signs of weakness at work
Too much employee recognition hurts motivation
Conflict is to be avoided
Secrecy is a necessary part of doing business
Completion of tasks is the only measure of effective work
People are the means to the end of task completion
Change is inevitably painful
What’s being “Managed”?
You’ve heard it before – management is not a science.
The assumption is that people with little or no knowledge of human psychology and social dynamics (other than their own personal experience) come together and perform at optimal levels, often under significant pressure. Some of those people have the responsibility to manage the efforts and output of other people and get them to “deliver” maximum performances.
The dominant belief is that actions are somehow divorced from emotional needs. The expectation (one that governs most modern ideas about work) is that common sense and “professionalism” should prevail and guide every required task to successful completion.
After all, I pay you….
Sounds pretty sterile, right? How about unrealistic? But this is the meme that underlies most of what we believe about work. The new workplace will require an essential literacy of human dynamics grounded in science and not myth.
According to Smart Tribes author Christine Commaford, “Before employees can meet the needs of employers, they must meet theirs.” This heretical belief will contribute to fundamentally reshaping the nature of workplace relations. Commaford explains, “The greater the feeling of safety (emotional, physical) the more people will feel connected (we’re in this together) and the more they’ll feel they personally matter and can make a difference.” Its safety, belonging and mattering that will be the key to the successful workplace relationship of the future.
As economies and consequently, organizations re-organize, the role of workplace relationships will become even more important. With the decline of reciprocal employer-employee loyalty based on seniority, allegiance to co-workers is more likely to be the glue and motivator for future work engagement.
Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell explains, “Employees are often more loyal to those around them – their managers, colleagues, maybe their clients. These employees have a sense of professionalism and loyalty – that is related to the work they do more than to the company.”
The Silver Bullet?
Regardless of the dramatically changing landscape of work, human social needs will not. As much as mobility, technological change and fragmentation may dominate the workplace of the future, the need for social cohesion will increase.
James Hartner, chief scientist of workplace management and well-being for Gallup points out, “Human nature doesn’t change when the economy changes. It might take on a different dynamic, but what remains are the need to be connected – to a manager, a co-worker and/or a purpose and also the need to be recognized.”
If organizations are looking for a hook that will increase employee engagement beyond the promises and perks of the past – relationships will be at the top of the list. If employees are looking for the rewards of learning, community, creativity, meaning and purpose – relationships will give them a strong sense of enduring value.
“If you’re look for a silver bullet, Hartner adds, it is the quality of the relationship between an employee and his or her manager that determines the overall level of employee engagement. “
It’s the human connection that will rewrite the Story of Work in the future.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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