Want a Great Place to Work?
Focus on What Matters Most


Fortune Magazine partners every year with an organization called Great Places to Work to identify the 100 best companies to work for in America, and this year was no exception. What was exceptional and worthy of every executive’s careful attention is that the key to creating a great workplace has remained the same for more than 30 years.

It’s not lavish perks like free, gourmet food, well-equipped fitness centers, or onsite childcare. Instead, according to Fortune, it’s something far more basic, the essence of every company’s culture. Have you guessed what it is? In a word: relationships.

“It’s personal—not perkonal,” Geoff Colvin wrote in the March 5, 2015 issue of Fortune. “It’s relationship-based, not transaction-based.”

This isn’t a random assertion; it is supported by data and driven by demographics. In the 1950s, the most valuable employees were knowledge workers. Now, knowledge is ubiquitous. It’s a global commodity; Google can hire a knowledgeable coder in Mumbai, just as easily as Mountain View. No doubt, certain left-brain skills are still important, but superior relational skills are what set the best apart from the rest.

Some forward thinking companies even measure the state of relationships. Take SAS, the Cary, North Carolina-based analytics company that has been on the top 100 list every year since 1998. Colvin reports, “The firm surveys employees annually on the state of their relationships: Are they getting open communication and respect from fellow employees? Are they being treated like human beings?”

Successful companies want their employees to focus on building strong relationships and treating their colleagues with respect. When a company isn’t relationship-based, the symptoms bubble to the surface. Here are the three most common:

  • People don’t feel valued as individuals. While everyone wants to feel good about who they are and the contributions they’re making, people find their sense of value in different ways. Some people are more focused on performance and getting things done, so they want to know that their ability to make it happen at work is recognized and appreciated. Other people might be most concerned with refining processes so they do things the right way. They want to know that their attention to detail and logical approach is applauded. Still others want to be helpful to customers and colleagues. It’s energizing to these people when they know that their helpfulness is appreciated. This is why one-size-fits all management approaches that don’t account for individual differences often fall flat. The same holds true for awards and recognition programs.
  • People don’t feel understood—especially when well-intentioned behavior is criticized. Most employees want to do the right thing, so managers need to understand the intent behind the behavior before disapproving. Coaching still might be in order, but understanding motivation allows for more productive coaching conversations that preserve the employee’s dignity. Managers who are open-minded and committed to listening might even find that there are a variety of equally valid ways to accomplish the same goal.
  • People don’t feel free to be themselves at work. Constantly walking on eggshells around certain people is exhausting and often leads to disengagement. This isn’t an endorsement for rude, unregulated behavior, but it is important to create a culture where opposing viewpoints can be offered without people feeling like it is a personal attack.

The TotalSDI suite of assessments is an ideal toolkit for addressing the root causes that create these relational issues in the workplace. The SDI measures each person’s unique blend of motives (why they do what they do), reveals the things that may trigger interpersonal conflicts, and creates a common language for motives that makes it easier to talk about relational issues in the workplace. These tools also help people recognize which relational strengths (behaviors) they can use to become more effective when working with certain people and how to more effectively communicate their expectations of others.

Now, more than ever, the ability to build teams, collaborate, communicate cross-culturally, and navigate conflict is the new, in-demand skill set that every top-notch organization seeks. Fortune quoted MIT professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland to make the point.

“It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas,” Pentland said. “it is those who are best at harvesting them from others. It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who must fully engage with like-minded people. And it is not wealth or prestige that best motivates people; it is respect and help from peers.”

mike-headshotDr. Mike Patterson is a principal at PSP in Carlsbad, Calif. and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.

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