Positive Interactions in the Workplace: Work is Social and So Are We

positive-relationships-workplaceThe landscape for work has changed to a service-based economy that needs positive workplace relationships in order to thrive.

In industrialized societies, 75%of workers are now dedicated to service provisions such as transportation, banking, entertainment, and retail trade, rather than goods. In the United States, it’s 80% of workers (BLS, 2013).

In a service-based economy, work gets done with and through people, and organizations depend on positive interpersonal connections to accomplish their goals. For this reason, working effectively with others or in teams has become an important skill.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” -Helen Keller

At the same time, the work environment has become more volatile, uncertain, and complex. But to stay successful, organizations need employees to be their best: this means staff members are engaged, innovative, and laden with good interpersonal skills.

Employees are a competitive advantage for any organization. So what can engage them at work?


Engagement and Positive Relationships: Other People Matter

A recent U.S. survey highlighted that the top engagement condition for 79% of respondents was their relationships with co-workers (SHRM, 2015). Indeed, the workplace is an important contributor to individual well-being, largely because it offers the potential for positive relationships.

Countless studies show that relationships and work are the two major contributors to individual well-being (Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2008). While employees tend to change jobs more easily, loyalty and engagement to organizations depend on working relationships rather than on economic incentives (Ragins & Dutton, 2007).

That may come as a surprise unless you are familiar with the research coming out of positive psychology. Martin Seligman (2011), one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, notes that happiness cannot be achieved without social relationships.

Leading scholar Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi establishes that:

“We are biologically programmed to find other human beings the most important objects in the world” (1990, p. 164).

Neuroscience researcher Matthew Lieberman (2013) argues that because human beings are naturally social creatures, our interactions with others are just as vital as food and water.

As Christopher Peterson (2006), a professor of psychology summarizes:

“Other people matter.”


Engagement and Leadership

Because interactions are the means by which work occurs, it behooves any organization to develop high-quality relationships in the workplace.

Research by Gallup (2013) reveals that many managers alienate employees by becoming too critical, insensitive, demanding, and manipulative. Another study highlighted that employees are least happy when they are in the presence of their line manager (Kahneman et al., 2004).

It is little wonder that so many employees feel disengaged at work.

Gallup surveys found that 38% of American workers thought that their supervisor focused on their weaknesses or negative characteristics. 25% of American workers feel ignored by their manager (Gallup, 2013), while 22% of these employees were actively disengaged at work.

There is a better way.


Successful Leaders Encourage Social Connections

In organizations, as we have seen, everybody matters. However, when it comes to getting teams to function optimally, some people have a greater impact—we call them leaders. So what makes a successful leader?

A survey asked thousands of employees to score the effectiveness of their supervisors, and the answer was clear: a combination of strong results orientation and social ability characterized the more successful leaders (Zenger & Folkman, 2009).

“In other words, great leaders recognize the value of people’s social needs at work and are fully aware that, in the right work context, people can make good organizations great.”

Leaders with strong social skills get their teams to perform at their best by maintaining supportive relationships and combining the complementary strengths of their employees. They understand that humans are intrinsically social, which means that connections are an essential part of their experience in organizations.

They realize that organizations perform their work through social processes and, as a result, connections are a key focus for the successful accomplishment of their work.


Take-Home Message

People matter, and whether organizations and their employees languish or flourish might depend on the quality of the social connections in the workplace.

Many people spend most of their waking time at work, so happiness at work could feel incredible for millions of people. Successful leaders know the importance of social connections of their employees and will focus on enabling high-quality, positive relationships in their teams.

This changes everything for the better.

Are you a leader or do you aspire to become one? Have you got experience with boosting social connections in the workplace? Share your experience with others by leaving a comment below.


About the Author

rrRobert Rosales, MAPP ’15, works with organizations to develop positive leadership skills that shift workplace culture. He is the founder of LEAD ACADEMY, a business consultancy that advises clients on evidence-based positive workplace practices that support performance and people in organizations. With over 20 years of senior management experience at leading financial institutions and extensive education in positive psychology, Rosales also works with the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and with Universidad Tecmilenio in Monterrey, Mexico.


BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics). (2013). Employment by major industry sector. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_201.htm

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2008). Happiness: Unlocking the mysteries of psychological wealth. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gallup. (2013). State of the global workplace report 2013. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/services/178514/state-american-workplace.aspx

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. (2004). A survey method for characterizing daily life experience: The day reconstruction method (DRM). Science, 306, 1776- 1780.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. New York: Broadway Books.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ragins, B. R., & Dutton, J. E. (2007). Positive relationships at work: An introduction and invitation. In J. E. Dutton & B. R. Ragins (Eds.), Exploring positive relationships at work: Building a theoretical and research foundation (pp. 29-45). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.

SHRM. (2015). Employee job satisfaction and engagement. Retrieved from http://www.shrm.org/Research/SurveyFindings/Documents/2015-Job-Satisfaction-and-Engagement-Report-Executive-Summary.pdf

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2009). The extraordinary leader: Turning good managers into great leaders. New York: McGraw-Hill.


  1. Sam Vandervalk

    Good post. One of the issues for small businesses with 1 person often working is that there is little interaction with anyone but customers. It is easier to keep people around I think if you have more people working. I am a business coach and this is bit of problem for start-ups.

  2. Grace Nalweyiso

    Thanks for this conversation. Is it possible to access recent articles on positive work relations particularly from the prominent scholars.

  3. Adilson Tavares

    Is it possible to find a small group of people successful?
    Why or why not?


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