Positive Relationships in the Workplace: Work is Social and So Are We!

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
Helen Keller

Work gets done with and through people

The landscape for work and careers is rapidly changing. For example, did you know, that in industrialized societies, roughly three out of four workers are now dedicated to service provisions such as transportation, banking, entertainment, or retail trade, rather than goods? In the U.S., it’s four out of five people (BLS, 2013). 

In a service-based economy, work gets done with and through people and organizations depend on positive interpersonal connections to accomplish their goals. For this reason working working effectively with others, or in teams, has become one of the most important skills in the workplace.

At the same time, the work environment has gradually become more volatile, uncertain, and complex. In order to be successful in these times, organizations require employees to be at their best; fully engaged, innovative and creative, and able to display good interpersonal skills. Employees are arguably the ultimate competitive advantage for organizations. So what exactly engages people at work?


A recent U.S. survey highlighted that the top engagement condition for 79 percent of respondents was their relationship with co-workers (SHRM, 2015). Indeed, the workplace is an important contributor to individual well-being, in particular, because it offers the potential for positive relationships.

While employees tend to change jobs more easily, loyalty and engagement to organizations depend on working relationships rather than on economic incentives (Ragins & Dutton, 2007). In fact, countless studies show that relationships and work are the major contributors to individual well-being (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2008).

That may come as a surprise unless you are familiar with the research coming out of positive psychology. Martin Seligman (2011), one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, notes that happiness cannot be achieved without social relationships. While Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, another leading scholar, points out that, “We are biologically programmed to find other human beings the most important objects in the world” (1990, p. 164).

Neuroscience researcher Matthew Lieberman (2013) argues that because human beings are naturally social creatures, our interactions with others are just as vital as food and water. In sum, as Christopher Peterson (2006), a professor of psychology famously declared: "Other people matter."


Because interactions are the means by which work occurs, it behooves any organization to develop high-quality relationships in the workplace. But research by Gallup (2013) points out that many managers alienate those they work with by becoming too harshly critical, insensitive, overly demanding, or manipulative. Another study highlighted that the time of day when employees are least happy is when they are in the presence of their line manager (Kahneman et al., 2004).

There is no wonder behind the findings when we look at the results from engagement surveys performed by Gallup in 2013. The surveys found that over one-third (38%) of American workers thought that their supervisor focused on their weaknesses or negative characteristics. Maybe even more alarming is the fact that one in four American workers feels ignored by their manager (Gallup, 2013). While almost a quarter (22%) of these employees were actively disengaged at work. 

But there is a better way.

Successful Leaders foster Social Connections

In organizations, as we have seen, everybody matters. When it comes to getting teams to function optimally, some people have a greater impact -we call them leaders. So what makes a successful leader?

A survey asked thousands of employees to score the effectiveness of their supervisors, and the answer was clear: a combination of strong results orientation and social ability characterized the more successful leaders (Zenger & Folkman, 2009).

“In other words, great leaders recognize the value of people’s social needs at work and are fully aware that, in the right work context, people can make good organizations great.”

Leaders with strong social skills get their teams to perform at their best by maintaining supportive relationships and combining the complementary strengths of their employees. They understand that humans are intrinsically social which makes connections an essential part of their social experience in organizations. They realize that organizations perform their work through social processes and, as a result, connections are a key focus for the successful accomplishment of their work.

Take Home Message

Other people matter and whether organizations and their employees, languish or flourish largely depends on the quality of the social connections they nurture in the workplace. We spend most of our time at work and thus focusing on the essential factors for happiness at work will impact productivity, engagement as well as community, organizational and individual wellbeing.  Successful leaders know the instinctual importance of social connections of their employees and will focus on enabling high-quality, positive relationships in their teams- which changes everything, for the better.

Are you a leader or do you aspire to become one? Have you got experience with boosting social connections in the workplace? Share your experience with others by leaving a comment below. 


This article authored by Robert Rosales was originally posted on PositivePsychologyProgram.com