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ATD Blog

Leaders, Ignore Employee Relationships at Your Peril

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Positive, healthy relationships among colleagues are important for productivity and resilience. Yet, very few companies actively work to support and promote such relationships.

As explained in my recently published research paper in the journal Strategic Organization, co-authored by Caroline A. Bartel of University of Texas-Austin, how organizational colleagues interrelate is a direct reflection of what higher-ups choose to focus on.

According to this attention-based framework, there are three main types of relational systems. Relational advocacy, which few firms practice, is a system where cultural norms and incentives exist to ensure colleagues work together harmoniously.

Relational antipathy describes organizations that have made a strategic decision to deprioritize relationship building among employees. This may be because senior leaders believe that a culture of competition rather than cooperation would be better for their firm, or because the business model is thought to lend itself to more transactional relationships. In any case, relational antipathy can be a workable system, especially when characterized by fairness as opposed to exploitation.

In terms of employee outcomes, the least effective system may be one of relational indifference, where lip service is paid to the importance of positive relationships (“We care about everyone!”), but senior leaders do not allocate the attention needed to create and maintain those relationships long term.


For example, an HR executive once boasted to me that their company gave out awards to employees who were helpful and generous toward colleagues. When I pressed for more information, the executive admitted that the awards program had recently lapsed. “We keep forgetting to send the announcement out, and the rewards behind it are pretty minimal,” they said.

Clearly, nobody was told that part of their job evaluation that year was to make sure they ran that awards program. What could have been a good way to bring people closer together and incentivize stronger relational connections fell by the wayside. Incidents like this one weaken the organization, because strong relationships are how crises get solved.


If leaders conclude that trust, cooperation, psychological safety, and the like are important for their culture, they should aspire to a relational system that promotes those qualities. Leaders at all levels should include relational objectives and outcomes in their employees’ performance assessments and as part of promotion evaluations. What is celebrated and rewarded in an organization is always a potent driver of behavior. Those appointed to any position of influence or granted a valuable resource (a raise, a high-visibility work assignment, more autonomy) should be expected to model the behavior needed to build robust, diverse networks of relationships within and across their units.

I always tell my executive development participants that the best place to start is with job descriptions. Put in the manager’s job description that one of their key metrics of success will be how well-connected their team members are. And the employee should also understand that one of their core responsibilities is helping their co-workers succeed.

About the Author

Kevin Rockmann is a professor of management at George Mason University's School of Business. He is the OB coordinator for the PhD in business program, the past director of the PhD in business program, and the past director of the MBA program. He also served as associate dean overseeing both graduate and undergraduate research. His research and teaching focuses on how managers and organizations facilitate not only the management of individuals but the management of the connections between individuals. It is in these dyadic ties that much of work is completed, including task work, creative work, and citizenship work. His work has been published in premier academic journals and edited volumes in the fields of management and organizational psychology as well as in leading practice-oriented publications and editorials. His research has been featured in many popular media outlets and recognized with scholarly awards from a variety of national and international organizations. He teaches courses on leadership, negotiation, and organizational behavior in a range of formats and settings. He is also the lead author on the textbook Negotiation: Moving from Conflict to Agreement, and he speaks and consults regularly for organizations on topics regarding leadership, negotiation, relationship management, and management teaching pedagogy.

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