The Ties That Bond: Strengthening Interpersonal Employee/Manager Relationships


As most know, relationships are complex, multi-dimensional, and ever-changing.

In the workplace, they can be even more so, as evidenced in part by the increased awareness around bullying and harassment through the #MeToo movement. Fortunately, diversity and inclusion initiatives are being prioritized to bring more understanding, leading to collaborative and respectful organizational cultures. Undeniably, the relationships at work are an important factor in creating a supportive and tolerant workplace — with the relationship between the employee–manager being a key element.

Bear in mind, employers are balancing five generations in the workplace, all with unique needs and wants, while trying to understand motivation and engagement drivers required to attract, retain, and increase employee productivity for competitive advantage.

Looking Towards Personalized Futures

Employers are continually looking for innovative ways to engage employees and enhance the employee experience. In some cases, human resource (HR) departments are looking at how to create “personalized” programs geared to cultivate an environment where employees are seen for who they are as a person: their contributions, opinions, and experiences. Designing something based on someone’s individual needs creates that personalized effect.

Given these priorities and the complexity of today’s workforce, it is important to gain a better understanding of the impact of a more “personalized” employee–manager “interpersonal” relationship.

The Employee-Manager Relationship

An employee–manager interpersonal relationship is defined as involvement between an employee and their manager and is built upon a two-way exchange. A positive interpersonal relationship is characterized by trust, compassion, and sensitivity towards others.

Relationships are built on trust. Without trust, you cannot lead, get people to believe in you or in each other, or accomplish extraordinary things. Therefore, sharing things about yourself forms a foundation for a relationship, such as talking about your hopes and dreams, family and friends, interests, and pursuits. This connection between an employee and manager can create meaning and be reciprocated with loyalty: “Getting to know others firsthand is vital to cultivating trust and collaboration” .

Moreover, research has shown that there is a fundamental human need for such interconnectedness and to be recognized as a professional and as a person. As such, relationships that allow the building of trust through open and honest communication, commitment, and accountability are critical.

Leadership Imperative and Perils

However, managers and leaders must not only possess a trusting relationship with employees, but also demonstrate open communication, emotional intelligence, accountability, authenticity, and social awareness. In short, to earn the trust integral to positive interpersonal relationships with employees, managers and leaders must model and live by the positive behaviours they espouse. Utilizing judgment, showing support, understanding, empathy, and compassion are critical to strengthening any relationship.

Together with trust, the importance of emotional intelligence as it relates to relationship management and leadership impact cannot be underestimated. Emotional intelligence, with its key facets including relationship skills, empathy, and emotional perception, together with sociability, emotional management, and social competence, evolves those behaviours most strongly related to worker satisfaction with their leader.

However, to create successful relationships in the workplace, one must also be aware of potential risks. A manager must be aware of professional boundaries and appreciate that becoming too friendly may create discomfort when needing to have a difficult conversation or discipline an employee. As well, others may perceive the manager showing favouritism to others. Possessing self and social awareness is the first step towards mitigating any perceived risks.

Why Interpersonal Relationships Matter

The benefits of strengthening positive interpersonal relationships between employee and manager are substantial, benefitting the organization as well as the individuals. When there is an increased trust with the manager, performance and productivity are augmented by a willingness to go above and beyond: a direct reflection of enhanced employee engagement and satisfaction.

Similarly, possessing high-quality relationships improves one’s health and wellbeing. Supportive and cohesive relationships create a healthier immune system, provide social support, and promote higher-level performance, as well as healthier lives.

Fostering Human Connectedness

In order to foster a culture of respect, understanding, and human connectedness, practical solutions, development, and multi-faceted processes should be embedded in the organization to strengthen interpersonal relations from front line workers to executive. This could be achieved through finding formal and informal opportunities to create connection and meaningful interaction with people—to encourage people to get to know each other in a more holistic and caring way. This could also be through learning and celebrating diversity and cultures in the workplace, volunteering with community organizations to learn about those with special needs, and so on.

Furthermore, in a tech-driven world, face-to-face meetings can be encouraged versus email correspondence, team-building activities arranged, and shared communal spaces in the office environment created. Evidence from this study confirmed that organizations must be purposeful in creating “high-touch” human connection alongside the “high tech.”

A Work in Interpersonal Progress

Specific business processes that foster the development of interpersonal relationships—in tandem with targeted learning—will help embed holistic change within the organization. The following are three examples that could be implemented by organizations with the support of human resource professionals to nurture interpersonal relationships:

  • Create communal seating areas that are technology free zones for informal employee interactions, meetings, coffee, and lunches;
  • Provide training and development sessions on relationship skill sets. This could be done informally over a Learn over Lunch or more formal, structured training seminars. Ensure opportunities to embed the training are incorporated into the workplace; and
  • Review a key organizational process such as recruiting and look at opportunities to incorporate questions and informal coffee chats into the hiring process.

A Road Map to Development

Employees are very interested in leaders demonstrating interest in their professional development as a key means of tailoring the interpersonal relationship. Managers adept at cultivating people’s abilities show a genuine interest in those they are helping, understanding their goals, strengths, and weaknesses.

The following is an example of tailoring professional development for an individual. Managers and employees can work together with HR for guidance.

  • Set up a time to meet with your employee and learn about their short, medium, and long-term professional and/or personal goals;
  • Collaborate with the employee and identify a realistic development plan;
  • Have the employee set up regular check-ins to discuss progress on their development. Development can include on-the-job training, mentorship, and/or formal courses and workshops;
  • As their manager, look for opportunities for your employee to action their development plan within your organization; and
  • Remove roadblocks, maintain open dialogue, and celebrate milestones reached.

The Fundaments of Respectful Foundations

Naturally, none of the above can be sustained without having a common ground to begin with—in this case, a safe and welcoming workplace. Creating and nurturing respectful workplaces, free of all forms of bullying and harassment, is a shared responsibility of both employees and leadership. To enhance awareness in the workplace, supported by HR professionals, consider the following:

  • Review organizational policies, processes, and orientation programs with respect to what a respectful workplace means in your organization. Involve employees in dialogue to create greater awareness and understanding about organizational values of respect. Regularly review and refresh employees on living respectful workplace values in your organization.
  • Encourage employee volunteering within the community to learn more about different cultures and diversity. This could be through an organization such as United Way and conducting a “Seeing is Believing” tour, which shares knowledge of community programs and creates awareness on the lives and challenges experienced by others in your community. Alternatively, requesting speakers to come in and share their life changing stories may help with acceptance and tolerance of others.
  • Promote, celebrate, and reward living respectful behaviours and don’t let those values just be words in a mission and value statement. Involve employees in fostering a culture of accountability, openness, acceptance, empathy, and respect. Leadership is a requirement of all staff, regardless of position. All employees can demonstrate leadership and model the behaviours they desire for themselves.

Face-to-Face with the Human Moment

Nurturing a relationship-based economy together with technological advancements in a changing and dynamic world can only strengthen organizations and enhance organizational performance. An emotionally intelligent leader creates a climate of enthusiasm, flexibility, and innovation and adds value through the essential human ingredients for organizational performance.

I encourage all organizations and all employees, whether you are a CEO or on the frontline, to take time to create face-to-face, human interactions and interpersonal relations with others. Remember: “We cannot move forward successfully without preserving the human moment.”

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