Getting Personal in the Workplace
Are negative relationships squelching productivity in your company?
By Steve Crabtree
The Gallup Management
In James Hynes' new novel, Kings of Infinite
Space, the main character comes to the realization that there are
zombies -- actual, soulless zombies -- lurking around his office. For
many employees, at least for many of those in unhealthy workplaces, this
feeling might be familiar. There are numerous workplaces in which
employee relations are often characterized by utter indifference -- or,
worse, jealousy, mistrust, and outright animosity.
Negative workplace relationships may be a big part of why so many
American employees are not engaged with their jobs. The
semi-annual Employee Engagement Index puts the
current percentage of truly "engaged" employees at 29%. A slim majority,
54%, falls into the "not engaged" category, while 17% of employees are
"actively disengaged." (See sidebar on "The Three Types of Employees.")
Are negative workplace relationships a big problem?
Well, aside from
creating the stress people feel when they spend a significant portion of
their lives in essentially hostile territory, rocky workplace
relationships may be detrimental to an organization's functioning.
As technology grows ever more complex, jobs become increasingly
specialized. That means workers rely on each other more to generate
products and services. If problems or tensions hamper these
interdependent relationships, organizations become vulnerable.
To probe the impact of workplace relationships, the Gallup Management
Journal surveyed 1,003 employees nationwide. Respondents were asked a
variety of questions about their relationships at work. Gallup examined
responses to see which questions differed most between engaged employees
and those who were not engaged or actively disengaged.
Among the findings: Engaged employees are much more
likely than others to say that their organization "encourages close
friendships at work." Eighty-two percent of engaged employees showed
agreement by rating the statement a 4 or 5 (on a 1-5 scale where 5
is "Strongly Agree"), compared to 53% of those who are not engaged
and just 17% in the actively disengaged group. This connection
shouldn't come as a surprise, considering several of the 12 items
used to gauge engagement test for positive relationships (one
statement is "I have a best friend at work.") -- but even taking
that into account, the correlation is very high. (See "Item 10: I
Have a Best Friend at Work" in See Also.)
Perhaps more telling is the fact that 51% of employees who strongly
agree that their organization encourages close friendships at work (who
rate this statement a 5 on the 5-point scale) are extremely satisfied
with their place of employment, compared to just 19% of employees who
disagree with that statement (by choosing a 1 or 2).
In fact, responses to all of the relationship questions in this survey
differ significantly by respondents' engagement level. "Our favorite
moments, jobs, groups, and teams revolve around friendships with other
people," says Tom Rath, Gallup's global practice leader for
strengths-based development, who is currently working on a book
describing the importance of workplace friendships. "But we spend very
little time identifying and developing friendships at work. In fact, our
latest data suggest maxims like 'familiarity breeds contempt' may have
weakened employee productivity in the 20th century."
An element of selflessness
In the latest Employee Engagement survey, GMJ
asked respondents to
answer a set of relationship questions, first regarding their manager
and then regarding a colleague with whom they work a great deal. The
most evident finding is that engaged employees perceive an element of
selflessness in their best and closest partnerships, particularly those
with their managers.
In both cases, strong agreement with the statement "This person sets me
up for success" was the best differentiator of the "engaged" and the
"not engaged" groups. And unlike their not-engaged counterparts, engaged
employees also agree more strongly with regard to both managers and
colleagues that "This person is always understanding of me when I make
mistakes" and "This person and I complement each other's strengths."
This suggests that managers who want to boost workgroup engagement
levels -- and help not-engaged employees become engaged -- might benefit
from developing trusting and supportive relationships with their
"One of the strongest personal relationships in my life"
Many people may consider strong personal relationships unimportant in
the workplace. But the Employee Engagement Index results suggest that
these relationships hold a key to employee engagement.
When employees were asked to consider their workplace relationships with
their managers, the survey results revealed sharp differences between
how engaged and actively disengaged employees feel. While 16% of engaged
employees strongly agree with the statement "This person and I have one
of the strongest personal relationships in my life," only 4% of
not-engaged employees and 1% of actively disengaged employees strongly
In contrast, actively disengaged employees seem especially disenchanted
with their connection with their manager: 80% strongly disagree that
their relationship with their manager is one of their strongest personal
relationships, compared to 15% of engaged employees.
Engaged employees are also much more likely to consider their
relationship with their manager to be crucial to their success. Of
engaged employees, 49% strongly agree that "A strong positive
relationship with this person is crucial to my success at work," while
just 12% of actively disengaged employees strongly agree with the same
statement. In contrast, 33% of actively disengaged employees strongly
disagree with this statement, compared to just 6% of engaged employees.
The substantial differences between groups clearly illustrate that
developing and maintaining strong relationships with employees is a key
to creating a strong, productive workgroup.
Despite efforts to keep the personal and professional realms separate,
it's becoming increasingly apparent that workplace relationships are
personal and that negative relationship dynamics have far-reaching and
long-term consequences for organizations. People don't become
soulless zombies when they arrive at the workplace. And attempts to
force them to act that way are likely to lead to a less engaged
Results of this survey are based on a nationally representative sample
of about 1,000 employed adults aged 18 and older. Interviews were
conducted by telephone October 2000 - April 2004 by The Gallup
Organization. For results based on samples of this size, one can say
with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other
random effects could be plus or minus three percentage points. For
findings based on subgroups, the sampling error would be greater.
The Q12 items are protected by copyright of The Gallup Organization,
1992-1999. All rights reserved.
Steve Crabtree is Lead Editor of The Gallup Poll
Tuesday Briefing, a weekly online publication featuring research-driven
insights in the areas of healthcare, education, religion, government,
2004 The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission. Visit The Gallup Management Journal at