Kyle Ehrbardt (University of Colorado Denver) and Belle Rose Ragins (University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee) explored workplace relationships in three large-scale studies (nearly 700 participants total). They tested a model of how work relationships affect organizational concerns. We have “relational needs” that result in varying degrees of “relational attachment.” The degree of relational attachment is related, in turn, to our organizational commitment, work engagement, turnover, absenteeism, and more.
They built on the work of William Kahn (2007) who talked about two types of relational needs:
- instrumental support needs – “help with job tasks and/or making sense of the environment"
- personal support needs – “help with personal challenges”
Ehrbardt's and Ragins's findings supported their model: “relational needs fit predicted relational attachment.” Relational attachment predicted organizational commitment, turnover, absenteeism, and life satisfaction.
But as they also predicted, work relationships can be “too close for comfort.” When employees get too much support, it can negatively impact relationships. In other words, work relationships are good to some point but at some point they can become intrusive. That point will vary from person to person.
Ehrbardt and Ragins suggest managers and organizations recognize that positive workplace relationships can lead to positive organizational outcomes, but managers need good listening skills and emotional intelligence so they do not become too intrusive.
1. Ehrbardt and Ragins have provided a useful model for researchers interested in the impact of positive workplace relationships. However there is a flipside, the effect of negative workplace relationships. I would venture the impact of negative workplace relationships is different than just the absence of positive relationships.
2. I see large individual differences here. Some people are very social and naturally build positive relationships at work. Others are less social and may interact as little as possible. In other words, there are significant differences in the relational needs of employees. My guess is, all things being equal, it should be easy to perceive who is which.
3. But all things are rarely equal. You could have very strong work relationships where everyone disagrees with how the organization is being run or even the organization’s objectives. For example, a medical facility, to the disagreement of employees, may put profits above patient care. Congruence between employee perceptions and organizational objectives may moderate the impact of the relationships-commitment linkage.
4. For organizations, this research shines a light on the importance of positive workplace relationships in discussions of workplace engagement. The most important of these is the relationship with one’s boss. In my consulting and managerial experience, turnover was most often attributable to a poor supervisor. The importance of positive workplace relationships underscores the need for organizations to stay abreast of what managers are doing in the workplace and the organizational climate they create.
5. For me the article caused me to look back over my workplace experiences and think about relationships. Many were instrumental making it easier to get things done. Others were more social, some people becoming close friends. As I say in Decoding the Workplace, “the world of work and the world of organizations are worlds of people.” Or as Ehrbardt and Ragins put it, “Relationships are the threads in the fabric of organizational life.”
Ehrhardt, K. & Ragins, B. R. (2019). Relational attachment at work: A complementary fit perspective on the role of relationships in organizational life. Academy of Management Journal, 62(1), 248-282.
Kahn, W. (2007). Meaningful connections: Positive relationships and attachments at work. In J. E. Dutton & B. R. Ragins (Eds.), Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation, 189-206. New York: Routledge.
Image, "Brainstorming-workplace-coffee", by mohamed_hassan. Image obtained from https://pixabay.com/en/brain-storming-workplace-coffee-3232627/ Used in accordance with: https://pixabay.com/en/service/license/
© John Ballard, PhD, 2019. All rights reserved.
Decoding the Workplace “deals with principles and practices that are timeless . . . Is this a must-have for managers and would-be managers? Yes.” Academy of Management Learning & Education, June, 2018.