Dr. Nicole Tschierske

The Importance of Relationships, High-Quality Connections, and Trust at Work

Think about your best time spent at work. Even if it was a stressful time where you experienced a high workload and tight deadlines, what made it great? I bet it was the people. Now think about a time when work was sailing smoothly, but still, you had days when you felt depleted and frustrated. What made things better? Again, people. Everyone knows the importance of maintaining and nurturing the relationships we have with friends and family. But at work, we rarely invest the time and effort (or even just consciously seize opportunities) to build and cultivate connections, which is odd because positive relationships at work are a tremendous job resource with benefits for our well-being and happiness and also for the organisation’s performance.

The importance of relationships at work 

According to Colbert et al (2016), relationships serve different functions that fall under instrumental support. These are:

  • Task assistance. We help each other by getting work done and answering questions, giving feedback, or assisting with a specific task.
  • Career advancement. This is about giving advice and providing access to contacts or other career-related resources to help each other advance in our careers.
  • Emotional support. We help others to cope with stress by listening to other people’s problems and responding in a supportive way. 

Beyond these, scientists Colbert et al, 2016 found that relationships in the workplace also serve additional functions. These, in turn, contribute to flourishing. We’re talking about:

  • Friendship.
  • Personal growth.
  • And giving to others.

Let’s get into the details of each.

Friendship

Most of us make friends or companions at work. These close relationships satisfy our need to belong. And this then contributes to our motivation and happiness. When it comes to the people we have frequent and pleasant contact with, we worry about their welfare, we feel close, we’re responsive to each other, and we trust to share more about ourselves. As a result, we feel understood and appreciated and have fun together. All that elicits positive emotions which contribute to your resourcefulness, capabilities, and resilience. 

Personal growth

When we help each other grow and develop as human beings at work, we achieve personal growth. Those skills and competencies transfer into our personal lives and positively impact our life satisfaction, which is a key component of human flourishing (Keyes, 2007). In short, if we feel good, we do well. 

Giving to others

When we give others the opportunity to assist, mentor, support, or care for another person, we help people achieve a sense of meaning. This happens when we feel we’re contributing to others‘ welfare through our work. Plus, it comes with a host of benefits, such as satisfaction with work and improved performance.

Even when we don’t know the benefactors of our work, doing our work as part of a group we identify with and feel like we belong to increases our sense of meaningfulness (Pratt & Ashforth, 2003; Rosso et al, 2010). As we’ve seen, this is also a basic psychological need and a huge motivation factor. Giving to others can be facilitated through formal employee support programmes, but it also happens in everyday informal relationships at work. 

Practical steps to create positive relationships at work

So what can you do as a leader to create positive relationships at work?

  • Provide task assistance. Help someone get their work done or answer questions that someone has about their job. Demonstrate that you’re willing to give someone a hand with their work. 
  • Facilitate career advancement. Discuss career plans with people in your team and give them opportunities to build their careers. Or helps them identify development opportunities that will help them achieve their professional goals. 
  • Offer emotional support. Help people in your team cope with stress or release tension. Allow them to vent their frustrations when needed. 
  • Offer friendship. Understandably, not everyone at work will become your close friends. But some people will, so tell them you consider them as friends and spend some time together outside of work. Show them and reiterate to them that this is more than a working relationship. It’s important the feeling is mutual here, so be sure to respect someone’s boundaries if you notice or are told that the other person doesn’t feel the same way.
  • Provide opportunities for personal growth. Help someone grow and develop as a human being by giving advice, sharing your own experiences where relevant, or asking thoughtful questions. Encourage someone to become a better person by giving feedback, challenging their thoughts and assumptions, or by encouraging and cheering them on. Also, help someone develop other life skills and competencies, such as problem-solving, active listening, or being patient. 
  • Provide opportunities for giving to others. Give someone the opportunity to assist others (or to assist you). Also, provide them with the chance to mentor and support others or to give something back.

Thinking about the above tips, what will you do differently in your one-to-one relationships? Also, as a leader, how will you facilitate and encourage the above behaviours and relationship-building between members of your team without being directly involved yourself?

The importance of high-quality connections at work

So far, we looked at the impact that relationships have at work. But do all relationships have to be deep and long-standing? Do we need to have strong relationships with everyone? And is that even possible? Or is there a way to work well with people we’ve only just met or don’t work with all that often?

While it may be realistic to have deep and strong relationships with the people you work closely with on a daily basis, you can also reap benefits from or feel the impact of shorter interactions with the people you don’t spend as much time with. Jane Dutton researched the small connections that make a difference in our lives and says, “Every interaction with others at work – big or small, short or lengthy – has the potential to create or deplete vital energy.” (Dutton, 2003).

In her book (Dutton, 2003) and her research papers (Stephens et al, 2003, Carmelli et al, 2009, Dutton, 2014), Dutton and her collaborators describe how even the smallest interactions, if they’re low-quality and corrosive, can harm the individuals and the organisation. On the other hand, high-quality connections contribute to flourishing individuals, teams, and businesses and have wide-ranging benefits for everyone involved. 

Let’s look at these benefits in more detail.

Effects of corrosive connectionsEffects of high-quality connections
For the individual:
More difficult to do our work.
Turn us inward to protect ourselves.
Distract us from our tasks because we keep wondering why someone treats us in a certain way. 
We try to avoid the people that drain our energy.
Over time, this reduces the quality and efficiency of our work.
We’re reluctant to do extra work.
Damage our psychological well-being and create stress.
We don’t function effectively when we feel devalued and disrespected.
Even small but consistent daily acts of incivility or corrosive connections can lead to anxiety, depression, and emotional exhaustion.
Spill over into our personal lives. 
For the individual:
Improve our physical health (strenghtened immune system, lower blood pressure, reduced stress levels) and psychological health and well-being. 
We’re more engaged in our tasks as we put more time and concentration into them because we have greater access to our cognitive and emotional resources.
We’re more willing and have a greater capacity to learn because information is shared more easily, and we’re not afraid to make mistakes or take risks.
All of the above, in turn, improves our performance at work.
For the organisation:
Reduced performance because corrosive connections impair people’s capabilities, knowledge, motivation, commitment, and emotional capacity.
May trigger destructive behaviours, such as revenge or cheating as a result of taking our pain out on others. 
The damage spreads across the team and functions. 
For the organisation:
Better cooperation within and across the team.
Greater loyalty to those we’re in connection with.
More effective coordination across teams (good connections break down silos).
More commitment to the organisation and intentions to stay.
Help spread purpose and values across the business.
Improve organisational learning through more dialogue and deliberation.
Make the organisation more agile to adapt to change. 

This side-by-side comparison shows that it’s worth making an intentional effort to create more high-quality connections with the people you interact with. But also, it’s important to try to enable and encourage these types of connections between others.

So what exactly are those high-quality connections? Think of them as short-term interactions in which both people experience vitality, positive regard, and mutuality (Dutton, 2014).

Practical steps to create high-quality connections

As pictured in the images below, four strategies can help us create high-quality connections:

  • Respectful engagement.
  • Task enabling.
  • Trusting.
  • And playing.

Let’s look at them all individually and in more detail.

Respectful engagement 

This relates to engaging with others in a way that sends a message of value and worth.

How often and how well do you send others messages that will boost their self-worth? Think about how present and responsive you are when you talk to others. How well do you listen and acknowledge the other person as a human being above all else? 

Task enabling

This relates to helping others to perform successfully.

How often and how well do you help others succeed? Think about ways to encourage people, provide them with resources, or coach them through challenges.

Trusting

Trusting relates to showing others that we believe in them. We trust they’ll meet our expectations and that we think of them as dependable.

How often and how well do you trust others? Think about showing your team members or peers that you see them as reliable, consistent, and competent. Are there ways for you to show your vulnerability as a sign you trust them?

Playing

And last but not least, playing relates to participating in activities or games with other people with the goal to have fun.

How often and how well do you play with others? Are you even available for playful moments? Or do you stick to formality and are always overserious? What opportunities are there to engage in real play – either while doing work or as a fun activity during a team meeting?

The importance of creating trust at work

We mentioned trust earlier. Can we trust everyone at work? Have you ever felt hesitant before saying something in a specific context at work or around certain people? This might be because you don’t trust them to listen without judgement. Or maybe you fear what they’ll do with the information you share. Even worse, you might worry that anything you say may end up somehow working against you later on. Perhaps you have even found yourself documenting everything in writing (via meeting minutes and emails) because you don’t trust your senior leader to remember you flagged a risk or raised an issue. If that’s not you, you probably know someone who’s been in these situations or regularly acts like this.

“Trust is the bedrock for many employee outcomes, such as job performance and satisfaction (Zhu et al., 2013), organisational commitment (Miao et al., 2014), organisational citizenship behaviour (Mushonga et al., 2014), and psychological safety (Frazier et al., 2017).”

According to Fischer & Walker, 2022, the above are all aspects that you, as a leader, want to promote and enhance. However, trust is elusive and hard to define. And the reason for this could be that trust is multidimensional and conceptualised differently depending on whether you work in an office, a hybrid work environment, or as a completely remote team. And also, the idea of trust and how it manifests varies depending on what type of leader you are.

In other words, “the relationship between employees and direct managers versus senior leadership differs in relation to trust.” (Fischer & Walker, 2022). In their study, Fischer & Walker, (2022) identified three overarching themes when it comes to employee trust:

  • Trustworthy behaviours.
  • Interpersonal connection and care.
  • And trust enablers.

Looking at these and their sub-themes (all uncovered by interviewing employees about the topic) may give you some ideas about what you can do to build trust with your team members.

Practical steps for creating trust at work

The following steps will help you to build trust in your team and organisation, so let’s look at each of them in more detail.

Trustworthy behaviours

These are the things you do (and your team members see you doing), and they hold true for both face-to-face and virtual teams.

Being honest and integral

Can anyone predict how you, as their leader, will react to a situation? Are people confident they can have honest interactions with you? Are you, as a leader, openly sharing your concerns for matters that are work-related?

Handling communication

Do you share information openly? Are you able to listen and empathise with team members? Do you demonstrate acceptance, and create transparency and clarity? Are you able to ensure confidentiality?

It’s worth pointing out that, especially in a virtual environment, frequent communication matters. So, do your team members feel well informed? Are you, as a leader, open and transparent in what you share? Do you keep private information confidential? Can people in your team talk to you about challenges openly? Do you communicate enough? And do your team members understand what’s being said?

Being reliable and consistent

Are you reliable and consistent in your actions and keep your word? Will you do as you say or promise? Can people count on you to do something? Can they rely on you coming through for them?

Supporting team members

This can take many forms, such as helping people learn from their mistakes, advocating for team members‘ views rather than pushing your own agenda, mentoring, and showing concern and understanding for people’s personal situations. Think about people who may have personal hardship or caring duties at home, for example, that might impact how they perform at work.

When you offer support, your team will know you have their back, rather than thinking that certain actions may backfire on them. For example, your team will know you’ll back them in tough conversations with senior leaders instead of being political. They’ll know you take into consideration the fact someone may have to care for their child, have a sick parent, or deal with separation or divorce, for example.

Showing respect to team members

Do you treat your team as equals rather than subordinates? Or are you someone who uses power dynamics? For example, do you include your team in decisions and changes? Or do you see your team as inferior to you? Do you communicate with everyone or just with your peers or an elite group of people? Do things like salary cuts or layoffs affect everyone or only specific people?

Interpersonal connection and care

Exposure

This relates to making yourself available to your team and spending time with them through frequent contact and being visible. Exposure naturally requires more effort in virtual teams, and the more senior a leader is, the less visible they tend to be in the organisation. So increasing visibility and exposure is a powerful strategy to build trust in your team. 

How often do your team members get to see you? Do you look people in the eye when you talk to them? Do you put in a conscious effort to see people in your team and connect with them when you’re all working remotely? Also, do you, as a senior leader, mix with staff and show an interest in people? Do you contact people in your team regularly – even after the initial setup of a project?

Good rapport and understanding

This is the first step in establishing a trusted relationship, and it’s essential. Can you, as a leader, build rapport with your team? Do you do that by, for example, having coffee with people on your team? Or talking about your personal life and theirs? Do you ever ask them about their aspirations?

Having common ground and similarities

This relates to the sense of sameness that enables rapport and understanding. It’s about creating shared experiences or finding similarities and common ground through conversation. Can people in your team relate to you as a person? Do you find you share more and more with people the more you meet? Can people talk to you about aspects of their life that don’t have anything to do with work? 

Displaying vulnerability

Are you, as a leader, open about your strengths and weaknesses and what you need help with? Can you be genuinely vulnerable?

Creating psychological safety

This relates to providing your team with the knowledge and guarantees that there will be no negative consequences for taking risks or sharing challenges (be it professional or personal). Do your team members feel safe asking questions and speaking up? Can they say anything without being judged?

Feeling cared for and having an emotional connection

Do you truly care about the people in your team and the organisation? Do you acknowledge your team members‘ work and effort?

Trust enablers 

And finally, trust enablers support trustworthy behaviours and interpersonal connection and care. For example, what’s the trust propensity of your team members? In other words, how easy is it for people in your team to trust you as their leader, based on their personality and previous personal experiences? Do you find that your team members trust someone until they have a reason not to? Or maybe you notice they never fully trust someone at work?

Also, technology acts as a supporting tool for communication and exposure, especially in virtual teams. Do you catch up with your team frequently via video call or chat when you’re not in the same location as them? Do you keep your camera on during video calls? All these factors help with building the trust and high-level connections and relationships we talked about earlier.

So what will you do to create better relationships, more high-level connections, and increase trust at work? 

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​