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Work is a Relationship, Not a Contract

When you look for data about what drives employee engagement, the list is always pretty similar.

  • Feeling valued
  • Trust
  • Knowing someone cares about me and my development
  • Appreciation

Here’s the funny thing. If I were to show you just this list and ask you what it describes, “work” is not likely the first thing you’d say.  You’d probably guess that they describe some kind of relationship–with your best friend or spouse or maybe a family member.

As it turns out, decades of employee engagement research have been trying to tell us something incredibly important and simple.

For employees, work is a relationship.

This begins to explain why employee engagement levels are so dismal at so many organizations.

The problem?

Most employers still treat work as a contract with the employee.

The employer offers up a paycheck in exchange for the employee’s time and work. And most of our HR processes are designed to ensure employee compliance with this contract–to make sure the employer gets what they paid for.

This isn’t a great approach to relationship building. Imagine being in a marriage where your spouse rarely tells or shows you that they love you, but frequently reminds you of your obligations as a spouse and how well you are fulfilling those.

This is a recipe for divorce.

So it should be no surprise that engagement continues to suffer and employees keep moving on, looking for a better and more fulfilling relationship.

To create an organization where employees will be fully engaged and committed means rethinking everything about the work experience. It means redesigning the work experience to function like a healthy relationship.

This requires that we first gain a deeper understanding of what makes for a healthy relationship.  Armed with this insight, we can then begin our redesign of the employee’s work experience.

The Six Elements of a Healthy Relationship

From friendships to romantic relationships, there are some key elements that must be present if the relationship is to be healthy and fulfilling for both parties.

  1. Appreciation – As human beings, we crave acknowledgement and validation.  In our relationship with our employer, we need to know that we are seen and our work is noticed. Not just when it’s deemed important or when we go above and beyond.
  2. Acceptance – To make the work relationship a healthy one for employees, we need to create an experience and environment that makes each person feel accepted and embraced for who they are, not who we wish they were or want them to be.
  3. Communication – As humans, when we are in doubt, we assume the worst. It’s part of our survival instinct.  We expect the worst, so we aren’t surprised by it. Anytime an employee is unclear or uncertain, they assume bad things that lead to disengagement and a deteriorating relationship. Healthy relationships require ongoing, open conversation that helps remove uncertainty and replaces it with clarity.
  4. Support – When we are in a healthy relationship, we hold each other in positive regard, choosing to see failures by the other as the result of honest mistakes or tough circumstances not as a character flaw. We also assume the other person has positive intentions in everything they do so we forgive quickly and easily.
  5. Commitment – A positive relationship requires reciprocity. Both parties must be truly invested in each other and be willing to work to ensure that the other is happy and satisfied. Commitment is also about how you recognize it and repair the relationship when things go wrong.
  6. Time – When I asked my then 7-year-old daughter how she knows if someone loves her, one of the first things she said was “they spend time with me.” Even as a child, we understand that we make time for what’s important. Relationships require time. There is no shortcut.

Work is a relationship, not a contract. And, far too many employees are trapped in a dysfunctional work relationship. Only by embracing work as a relationship can we finally begin to create the kind of workplaces and work experiences that human beings crave and where they can truly thrive.

The challenge to us as leaders, managers and designers of work experience is this: how can we bring these elements into the day to day work experience we create and foster for each employee?

The answers aren’t always easy to find. But they are always worth the effort once you do.

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