Every two months, my company hosts what we call "Development Day"--a full day of workshops pitched, designed and presented entirely by employees. The concept for Development Day started as an effort to establish ongoing learning and development, and while it's certainly accomplished that goal, it's also served another unexpected purpose: establishing community.

The sessions cover core skills like time management, working remotely, and public speaking--plus personal skills like baking cake pops, iPhone photography, and fixing a flat tire. Employees share their various interests and expertise with their coworkers and inevitably start to feel closer to each other.

Anecdotally, I've witnessed these stronger relationships on teams lead to stronger work overall, and major studies point to the same message: Office friendships boost engagement and productivity. Gallup's State of the American Workplace 2017 report found that only 20 percent of employees have a best friend at work. But if that rate increased to 60 percent, organizations would see 36 percent fewer safety incidents, seven percent more engaged customers, and 12 percent higher profit.

For managers, cultivating stronger relationships with employees could be the difference between success and failure. It comes down to creating a workplace in which people have the opportunity--and the choice--to form personal bonds in professional settings.

Forming a personal bond requires vulnerability. Too often, people see vulnerability as counterproductive in the workplace. In fact, it's integral to one of three core parts of someone's attitude at work: cognitive, affective and conative.

Cognitive attitude is our belief about work; affective attitude is our emotional reaction to work; and the conative attitude is our behavioral reaction to work. You worry about what your employees think about work (cognitive), but you forget that it's deeply intertwined with how they feel and act.

For example, if an employee believes a project is pointless (cognitive), she might lose respect for her manager (affective), and leave the company (conative). If people don't care about work and don't feel comfortable discussing how they feel, you'll inevitably get low engagement and high turnover.

Investing in relationships is essentially investing in the "affective" side of work and embracing vulnerability. Here are three ways to do just that:

1. Ask "How are you?"

This statement should never be a passing phrase--instead, wait for a real answer. You don't have to be best friends with your employee to have a general sense of what's going on in her life.

Did she just move? Did she get a new dog? How is the new position treating her? Follow up to "How are you?" with polite, specific questions.

You'll be pleasantly surprised by the honesty in return. By providing space for your employees to authentically speak to their emotions, and (hopefully) clear their minds of non-work related problems, you'll have a rejuvenated and loyal workforce.

2. Encourage employees to share their stories.

Development Day is a great example of employee-led programming that contributes to stronger relationships. One session stands out to me in particular: We hosted a "Story Jam" inspired by The Moth, a non-profit organization dedicated to the art of storytelling, in which Cornerstone's presentation coach worked with ten volunteers to tell 3-5 minute stories on fear to the company.

At the end of the presentations, there was barely a dry eye in the house--it was so well-received that we're now including a story jam in every Development Day. One executive who volunteered told me, "I've been here for ten years, and I'm so grateful I get to work for a company that allows us to do something like this, and it's safe."

You should never force an employee to share personal details. You should offer them a platform to explain the experiences that informed their unique perspective on the world. Exposure to these stories will lead to a higher degree of empathy between coworkers, which can reduce judgment and inspire respect and honesty instead.

3. Reflect on personal and professional goals.

Demonstrate your investment in your employees as individuals by supporting their goals outside of work. This might be as simple as publicly congratulating a team member for running a marathon over the weekend, or as structured as tracking progress against both personal and professional goals in your check-ins.

I recently heard about a great example of the latter: My colleague was at a conference where the organizers ended each session by asking for one commitment ("I'm going to do X when I leave") and one piece of gratitude ("I'm appreciative for X") from each participant.

The key to building better relationships with employees is empowering people to bring their whole selves to work. To truly motivate your employees, provide opportunities for work to become an integral part of their life--instead of just a means for living.

Published on: Aug 8, 2017