Attitudes to business and the network of relationships that comprise an organisation are changing.
While last century business people often took a transactional approach to workplace relationships, seeing them as tools for improving productivity and increasing profits, now the tide seems to have turned.
Today, most business leaders understand they need to focus on an organisation’s social purposes, both internal and external, as well as short-term profits to build sustainable companies.
Building meaningful and productive relationships in the workplace requires us all to take individual responsibility for those relationships. And leaders must model that behaviour.
Do you objectify your colleagues?
The 20th century philosopher Martin Buber argues that there are two basic types of relationships.
These are based on the word pairs ‘I – Thou” and “I - It”. The latter, Buber stated, is the mode in which most people interact with the world, where we treat the other as an object to be used. Or to put it in other words, this means that when I look at you and focus on what I can get from you, I objectify you and enter into a transactional relationship that can be manipulative.
When the motive for relationship building is to improve productivity (to get something out of someone), it often involves treating people as objects. For example, it does not matter how ‘nice’ I am on the surface; people will intuitively know that my interest lies only in what they can deliver and nothing else.
Unless there is genuine interest in the work, aspirations and wellbeing of my colleagues (be they superiors or subordinates) I am nothing more than an actor trying to cover his or her selfishness with a bit of polite conversation.
When I am first interested in the person themselves, I enter into an ‘I – Thou’ frame of mind and start building meaningful, respectful and equal relationships.
Encourage others to feel like an equal partner
Encouraging an individual to feel that they are an equal partner in a workplace relationship will provide an opportunity to build something that is beneficial to both parties.
If this is then broadened to consider many-to-many relationships involved in organisations, it is clear that to be effective, an employee engagement strategy must be based on the understanding that every employee is an individual, who, regardless of status or position, is worthy of having their thoughts, opinions and ideas properly heard.
Such a strategy is not just a piece of paper. It must come from a genuine desire and honest intent of members (starting with leaders) to build human to human connections. It demands a particular type of organisation where honesty and trust are present and continuously nurtured, and where leaders reflect regularly on their own character and motives.
Help others be their best
Yale professor Frank Kiel talks about leaders with strong moral character, recognised by the following consistent actions:
- They keep promises and follow through on commitments (integrity habit)
- They own up to mistakes (responsibility habit) and accept that other people will also make mistakes (forgiveness)
- They treat people as people, showing interest and helping them to accomplish their personal goals and develop their skills (compassion)
In my view, the pre-requisite for effective employee engagement and productivity in a business is a leader of strong moral character who is able to develop meaningful relationships in the workplace; they walk the talk, lead passionately by example and are genuinely committed to helping people bring the best out of themselves.