Karen Nestor, EdD
Organizational Learning Scholar & Board Member, Books@Work
Workplace Relationships Matter
Leaders, scholars and gurus agree: organizations whose employees feel valued and respected are more productive than organizations whose employees feel isolated or disaffected. But open and collaborative cultures take time to develop. There are no silver bullets.
Many companies limit their investment to the growth of leaders and high potentials, although the most successful invest in everyone from the C-suite to the shop floor. But we believe that investing in the space between colleagues yields the most critical returns. Researchers refer to “high-quality connections” between colleagues as the “dynamic, living tissue” of organizations. When we take the time to nurture authentic human connections, we foster engagement, creativity and innovation. With increasingly diverse workforces spread across multiple geographies, we ignore the health and vibrancy of these connections at our peril.
Multidisciplinary research demonstrates that high-quality connections – at every level – drive the organizational outcomes outlined on this page.
Google’s well-publicized research confirmed that the company’s most effective teams demonstrated psychological safety or the “tacit understanding that their team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” But as Harvard professor Amy Edmondson reports, psychological safety emerges over time and only in teams with trusting and respectful human relationships.
“[Books@Work] has been enlightening for me. . . this is a psychologically safe place where you can express things without being judged and people will actively listen to you.”
Diversity programs often fail because they don’t create the necessary pathways for inclusion. Research confirms that behavioral change begins when we address our biases, and effective social contact reduces our biases. In practice, individuals that work side by side begin to see each other as equals. These insights have deep roots: a famous study during World War II revealed that integrated platoons had dramatically less racial animus and more will to work together than their segregated counterparts. Familiarity fosters acceptance because we find the things that unite rather than divide us.
“We’ve learned to respect one another’s thoughts more than we did before. I’ve also noticed that we stop and actually listen to what’s being said by our teammates.”
Personal & Collective Growth
In a recent study on growing at work, scholars Scott Sonenshein, Jane Dutton and Adam Grant found that employees’ personal perceptions of their own growth were deeply embedded in social context: participating in group achievements, learning a common language, learning from colleagues and helping colleagues to learn. They attributed these achievements to communication, mutual support and the creation of a “safe space to take the time to acquire new perspectives.”
“I’ve worked with them every day, talking about work stuff. Then we do Books@Work, and something out of one of our books will prompt a conversation, and before I know it, there’s a whole new side of these people I didn’t see. It’s so well worth our time, because we’ve all grown. We’ve all grown together. We’ve grown separately.”
In a compelling study at MIT, Alex Pentland used bodily-worn sociometers to measure social interactions in a former Bank of America call center. These digital devices measured the length and depth of interactions among colleagues. Colleagues who interacted more had faster calls, less stress and the same approval ratings as their colleagues who stayed glued to their phones. When the company synchronized employee breaks across their call centers, they saw a 20% drop in average call handling time – even for the lower performing teams – and a $15 million improvement in productivity over one year. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s powerful: time to connect with colleagues fosters increased productivity.
“Steinbeck said it best: ‘You can’t hate a man once you know him.’ Getting closer to people that you work with makes working easier.”
Organizational Learning & Innovation
Interpersonal relationships have long been identified as a key driver of organizational learning in the R&D space. In a landmark study, two management scholars coined the term “absorptive capacity,” an organization’s ability to recognize and apply new knowledge and principles. Organizations with the highest absorptive capacity explored and converted new ideas by supporting individuals’ unique knowledge and experience and creating a space to share diverse perspectives. Social connections unlock these ideas and put them to work.
“The act of learning is essential to everything we do. If you want to learn, you’re going to be paying attention to not just your job, but the jobs around your job.”
Rethinking Workplace Learning
Using carefully-curated narrative literature as a platform, Books@Work participants build these high-quality connections. The text provides a safe space to explore a wide range of sensitive topics, inviting an exchange of ideas, perspectives and experiences not normally shared at work. The interplay between the literary narrative and multiple personal narratives gives rise to a new collective narrative and a common language that invites trust, respect, openness and inclusion – in short, the authentic, sustainable connections that fuel a healthy and vibrant organizational culture.
“I just think that every employer everywhere should say, ‘Wait a minute, I want my employees learning all the time and I don’t care how they’re learning or what they’re learning because eventually that learning will help us.’ As long as you have a workforce that’s learning and growing and expanding their knowledge, it will benefit [everyone].”