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June - 2008 - issue > People Manager
Meaningful-Relationships-at-Work
C. Mahalingam
Friday, May 30, 2008
‘Social Capital’ is the name of the game; and its importance is being realized increasingly across organizations today. Social capital refers to a strong network of relationships that help build the human capital of an organization. Social capital builds trust and collaboration between individuals and teams and makes accomplishment of organizational goals easier with better teamwork. It also helps in leveraging the complementary talent people bring with them. In a complex work world, individual talent can take one to a certain distance, but network and relationships are clearly the sure-fire ways to success. While organizations can provide forums and avenues for networking and collaboration, it also depends pretty much on the individual’s initiative and proactive reaching out.

Welcome to the Circle of Network Influence:
Need for networking does not require much emphasis. Even when people are working remotely and are in a virtual setup, the need for networking does not disappear. It perhaps increases. Stephen Covey talked about the ‘circle of influence’ and ‘circle of concern’ while discussing the first habit called ‘being proactive.’ While most of us have some understanding of the significance of operating within our circle of influence rather than circle of concern, it is not enough. The new mantra is leveraging the ‘circle of network influence’. In doing so, you are looking for help, support, information, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing from beyond your immediate circle of colleagues and friends and tap into the network of their friends and colleagues. The benefits for the individual, team, and the organization in building meaningful relationships at work can be enormous. By the same token, I would also say that a large part of this benefit remains untapped!
In the next few paragraphs, let us look at the conditions that managers and organizations can create to make networking possible for people.

Conditions for Creating Meaningful Network of Relationships:
1. Trust: The first and foremost condition to be created to make the network of meaningful relationships flourish is trust. Relationships thrive in an atmosphere of trust. The management Guru and well-known futurologist, Charles Handy, wrote a brilliant piece in the May/June 2005 issue of Harvard Business Review an exceptional article titled “Trust and the Virtual Organization”. His observations in this article include:
* By trust, organizations really mean confidence, a confidence in someone’s competence and in his or her commitment to a goal. Define the goal, and the individual or the team can be left to get on with it.
* Trust demands learning. An organizational architecture made up of relatively independent and constant groupings pushes the organization toward the sort of federal structure that is becoming more common everywhere.
* Trust needs bonding. Self contained units responsible for delivering specified results are the necessary building blocks of an organization based on trust.
* Trust is not, and can never be an impersonal commodity. Trust needs a subjective touch. Visionary leaders are not enough. A shared commitment still requires personal contact to make it real.

Charles Handy makes these observations in the context of managing virtual teams. But these are also eminently relevant for the teams working under one roof!

2. Diversity: Diverse workforce is also a key condition for building meaningful relationships. We are talking about meaningful relationships at work and not cliques and groupism. Hence, diverse workforce with differences in age, experience, gender, and thought will go a long way in making this work. Remember the good old saying, “sameness is not necessarily oneness”. Managers must encourage those employees who think differently about key issues to share their opinion without fear or inhibitions.

3. Respect: Mutual respect helps in building meaningful relationships and networks at work since people will value the differences in views and opinions. This respect has nothing to do with merely the hierarchy and reporting. This is collegial in nature and is the basis for listening to each other and understanding and working through differences in perception. Being considerate, honest, and tactful requires a high level of mutual respect.

4. Communication: Circular communication between employees on an ongoing basis is again a key condition for networking and relationship building. It is about sharing ideas, discussing business, seeking and giving help, and sorting out differences. This can be rich or lean: It is rich when communication is face to face or over phone. It is lean when it is through email or electronic memos. Smart managers would leverage rich channels to handle more sensitive matters and lean channels to handle routine matters.

5. Mindfulness: This means a variety of things including being open to new ideas, feeling free to talk about what is working and what is not working in the workplace and even more importantly adjusting to situations as they present themselves every day rather than running on an autopilot mode all the time.

6. Varied Interaction: This is a key condition in building meaningful relationships at work because relationships cover a wide spectrum but can be broadly classified as both Social and Task-related relationships at work. Managers’ job is also to encourage employees to build relationships outside of work through professional and more importantly personal activities that will enhance the maturity, knowledge, and skills of employees when they are back at work.

Many of the conditions described above fall within the ‘circle of Influence’ for the managers, and effective people managers invest considerable time in creating these conditions conducive for people to build meaningful relationships at work. As mentioned earlier, the benefits for the employees and the organization can be really enormous.

It is not one-time, but on-going: Given the churn in the environment and in the organization we work, people come and go as projects start and complete, as attrition takes its toll on the team constitution, and as people move up or sideward in organizations. So, there is never a sense of constancy but only a sense of change. Therefore, managers should not underestimate the need to create, recreate and assess the presence of the conditions described above so that the desired level of meaningful relationships flourish in teams and in the organization as a whole. If a manger senses that a particular condition or a set of conditions do not exist or exist very weakly, then appropriate help from the HR or the training team may have to be taken to design and implement appropriate people-related intervention including exercises such as ‘outbound training’, ‘strength bombardment’, ‘mirroring exercise’ and such other things.

The need for creating appropriate ‘social exchange’ in organizations can hardly be overemphasized. The cost of not doing it can be too high in terms of knowledge management and productivity. Managers own this responsibility and therefore this may be shared with HR and ‘organization effectiveness functions’ internally, but can hardly be delegated to them.

The author is Executive VP and Chief People officer, Symphony Services Corporation. He can be reached at mahalingam.c@symphonysv.com
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