Flourishing Via Workplace Relationships: Moving Beyond Instrumental Support

Flourishing Via Workplace Relationships: Moving Beyond Instrumental Support

The study of meaning, positive experiences, and life satisfaction, are increasingly gaining attention in organizational literature all around the world. With the wave of millennials now entering the workplace, there are changing expectations and growing appetites to find meaning at work. A new generation in business and a new generation for business is emerging. Today, the value of flourishing in the workplace is a critical element to be considered for business strategy, from talent acquisition and employee retention to organizational performance.

In this study, a series of qualitative and quantitative research is used to develop and model functions of positive work relationships, for examining the role that these relationships play in employee flourishing.

Who conducted the Study?

Amy E. Colbert, Joyce E. Bono, Radostina K. Purvanova

Amy E. Colbert is the Professor and Director of the PhD Program in Management and Organizations at the University of Iowa, Joyce E. Bono is an Organizational Behavior professor at University of Florida, and Radostina K. Purvanova is a professor in the Management Department at Drake University.

Terms Used:

Positive, high-quality work relationships (Dutton & Heaphy, 2003): “a reoccurring connection between two people that takes place within the context of work … and is experienced as mutually beneficial.”

Positive work relationships (Ragins & Dutton, 2007): “mutually beneficial and generative.”

Social exchange lens (e.g., Blau, 1964): “relationship partners exchange resources that are useful in some way, such as money, advice or support.”

Flourishing (Keyes, 2007): “finding meaning in work, experiencing positive emotions, and ultimately finding satisfaction in life.”

What did they find?

The findings suggest that positive work relationships serve a wider set of functions than previously recognized. Extending beyond the traditional functions of task assistance, career advancement, and emotional support, these relationships are also recognized to promote personal growth, provide a source of friendship, and provide the opportunity to give to others.

Accordingly, this expanded understanding of positive relationships at work aligns with an overarching theme present in organizational literature. Work is becoming increasingly valued as a source of meaning, growth, and energy (Ragins & Dutton, 2007).

Ultimately, this research supports that positive work relationships have the potential to increase job satisfaction, provide meaningful work perceptions, elicit positive emotions, and support overall life satisfaction. With the advancement in our understanding of positive work relationships and functions from this research, also provided is a practical tool—the Relationship Functions Inventory—useful for assessing these functions.

How did they find these results?

The research included both qualitative and quantitative studies, validating a scale called the Relationship Functions Inventory (RFI). Using this scale they developed theory finding relevant circumstantial linkages between relationship functions and employee flourishing.

The first study they conducted was for identifying and measuring relationship functions, and it had three phases. Phase 1, they used an online survey to generate descriptions of good workplace relationships. The total participants included were 287 individuals, of which were 11% MBA students, 9% human service workers, 20% from the Mechanical Turk database, and 60% employed undergraduate students. These participants worked across a wide range of industries, were balanced across gender with 62% female, and were spread across all working age groups with 60% less than 25 years old.

Among the descriptions of good relationships generated, 52% were about peers, 39% about bosses, and 9 percent about direct reports. These descriptions were provided in response to an open-ended question asking respondents to think about a good relationship they had currently or in the recent past. Following, two authors coded 20 randomly selected stories using ATLAS.ti (2005) to identify relationship functions. Creating two independent lists of functions, the differences in labels and categorization schemes were matched to existing literature to find fitting. With discussion, the authors came to a consensus of a final six relationship functions.

A codebook was developed, and a team of six undergraduate psychology students coded and assessed the extent to which the six functions were present on a 4-point scale.   Coders were given the instruction to exclude incidents that did not describe a dyadic work relationship. The result was 282 coded stories used to make intraclass correlations (Barkko, 1976; James, 1982).

Phase 2, they developed a scale to measure the six relationship functions. Using a pool of 55 items they assessed content validity and clarity with item assignment procedures (Anderson & Wilson, 1997).

Phase 3, they examined the factor structure of the RFI by surveying 177 part-time and fulltime MBA students. Students were from two Midwestern universities, one large and public and the other small and private. Among this sample, 38% were 30 years old or younger, 44% were 31-40, 15% were 41-50, and 3% were over 50 years old; 63% were male.

To measure relationship functions, they used an 18-item RFI (3 items per function). The respondents answered using a 5-point response scale, and internal consistency reliability was assessed using coefficient alpha. Job satisfaction was measured with 5 items from Brayfield-Rothe scale (Brayfield & Rothe, 1951; Judge, Bono, & Locke, 2000). Satisfaction with coworkers was measured with the validated 18-item Job Descriptive Index-Coworker scale (Roznowski, 1989), which uses a 3-point rating scale.

The second study, the primary purpose was to examine the functions and their outcome for employee flourishing. Participants were drawn from the Study Response Project (http://www.studyresponse.net/index.htm), in part to get a wide variety of organizations and occupations. The selection criteria were 300 participants who (a) employed for 32 hours a week or more, (b) married to or living with a partner also enrolled in Study Response, (c) between ages of 18 and 65, and (d) U.S. or Canadian residents.

Participants received 2 online surveys about a month apart for the function items, positive affectivity, and demographics. The partners were sent an online survey 3 weeks in, to separate response times.

Why are these findings important?

Corresponding to numerous trends currently developing in the organizational context, the need for studying workplace relationships is in fact waning. This research serves as a timely contribution to organizational literature, particularly as we continue on the trend of flattening organizations, in which relationships are serving as center of routine operation. Additionally, as organizations continue on the trend towards increasing autonomy with technology, and allow employees to work from home, the dynamic of workplace relationships is also changing.

This research contributes a significant addition to the prior relationship literature, and is especially needed given that work has changed considerably since technology began breaking down the boundaries between work and other life (Bareley, Meyerson, & Grodall, 2011). Now that work is increasingly valued as a source of meaning, growth, and energy (Ragins & Dutton, 2007), and work relationships have expanded to even outside the workplace, insight to flourishing work relationships serves significant value to the individual, the organization, and beyond.

Notably, previous research has focused on how relationships help individuals cope with adversities and have ignored the role of relationships in personal development and growth. This research on the other hand, focuses on the opportunities these relationships provide for personal growth and development, that may benefit the organization and even extend beyond the workplace.

Where can these results be applied?

These results could be applied to organizations seeking to foster a workplace culture that values the individual, cares for personal development, and serves everyone needs regardless of hierarchy. Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan shares a radically new model that fosters these functional relationship values in his book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, published March 2016.

In April 2014, Kegan published a Harvard Business Review article, Making Business Personal, showcasing the success of organizations that have adopted a deliberately developmental organization model (DDO). One example is Bridgewater Associates, an American investment manager fund out of Westport Connecticut that manages approximately $150 billion. From 2009-2014 alone, the firm has been awarded with over 40 industry awards, and is recognized as a top-performing money manager. While DDOs may not be for everyone, this example showcases that positive work relationships fostering personal growth within the organization can be applicable towards business excellence.

Colbert, Amy, Joyce Bono, and Radostina Purvanova. Flourishing via workplace relationships: Moving beyond instrumental support. Academy of Management Journal (2015): amj-2014.

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