Difficult times usually happen unexpectedly. We have all just found ourselves in an extremely challenging situation, and we have felt vulnerability in several ways. During the largest global health and economic crisis that we have just experienced, it is particularly the relational that has been put to the test during COVID-19, which has led to both our well-being and engagement being exposed to risks. We have been resilience tested, so to speak, by the world’s comprehensive, societal, organisational and relational environment we find ourselves in. And why is that? For several reasons, but on the psychological part it is because the most important of all health management strategies has been to demand social distancing. A strategic necessity that has been crucial to crisis management but completely contradictory to human nature – and therefore, it potentially poses a risk to us. We are gregarious animals, and therefore, we are designed to use contact and presence to thrive and survive in everyday life. Vi are interdependent as human beings, and we are born and raised to be in close contact with each other.
With the intense and lasting social distancing during the COVID-19 period and the separation it has brought, resilience and engagement might be affected. The risk of social isolation is present, despite the adaptation of a virtual world of contact that, in parallel with the crisis, has arisen out of need. The message from governments around the world has been to “stay home!” because we as humans suddenly pose a danger to each other. We may be in this together, but we must be physically separated in isolation and still maintain the physical distance with no prospect of an end to the full reopening of the community.
Colleagues have been converted into a profile picture on a screen or a technically challenged reproduction in a virtual space that has become socially challenging to be in because the common social codes and norms have been disrupted. Close collegiate relationships may therefore have become less close, the sense of belonging in a workplace may be sensed to a lesser degree, and helpful colleagues in other locations may be perceived as less helpful than before. In many ways, in a crisis like this, the world has become a little bit more lonely to be in seen in the context of the workplace. A type of loneliness that due to the COVID-19 isolation has probably been offset by family interactions, neighbour talk over the hedge or the sight of other people on our short and necessary trips to the supermarket.
Usually when we are in good company with others in the workplace, we become stronger. Through this, we develop our psychological skills to meet and adapt to the challenges we face. Especially when we go through difficult times together, it becomes educational and rewarding for us as a community. The question is whether this type of “company” in an organisational sense should have our focus now rather than a view that is strictly oriented towards more technical and functional purposes, tasks and results? The very short answer is: Yes. If we believe that empowerment and engagement carry the organisation through in a sustainable way, it is precisely this type of human company we must focus on.
Social connections have already proven to be essential for the resilient processes that free up capacity1, and we see that the engagement of employees is strengthened precisely in environments where they feel more connected to each other2. This calls for human-centred leadership, and we must therefore still lift the gaze from operational work for a while because good company – our close relationships – takes the pressure of work in the way we experience it, so that we are better able to meet challenges, live through them competently and acquire learning while still retaining optimal human performance. It makes us stronger together, and there are plenty of challenges ahead.
The quality of the relationship between employees cannot be seen with the naked eye, and therefore, we need to examine it in greater detail.
In organisations, relationships can be understood at three levels:
We need all the different types of connections to thrive and function optimally in a world that can sometimes feel lonely3. As the workplace is a unique arena where we continuously have the opportunity to establish and maintain relationships, the COVID-19 period has naturally challenged us on this front. As a leader, think back to the time you have been through and consider the following in relation to the three levels of connections:
And then consider what has potentially helped protect you during this time:
Questions and reflections such as these can provide insights into relational dynamics and value and help qualify your leadership in the future or in similar pressured situations. At the same time, you can bring it into discussions in management teams so that you can learn from the situation you have been in with your employees.
Hopefully, you will gain new insights by reflecting more deeply on the situation you have been in during COVID-19. There is always learning to be gained from a crisis. What we know now is that relations are important and value-adding during difficult times – perhaps more than we might realise on a daily basis. From several research studies, we know that we transfer positive energy and psychological resources to each other when we interact in the organisation4. Other research shows5 that when we as human beings get at least six hours of daily social time, regardless of how it is achieved, our well-being increases, and stress and worry are minimised. When people have limited contact with others, having a good or a bad day is fairly similar, but every hour of social time will quickly reduce the risk of having a bad day. With just three hours of social time, the risk of having a bad day is reduced by 10%, and every additional hour of social time (up to the six hours) improves the likelihood of having a good day. It should also be mentioned that social time brings measurable benefits regardless of whether people are introverted or extroverted.
In addition, extensive studies have been carried out on engagement and the value of work-related relationships. In a special study, Gallup asked more than 15 million employees from around the world whether they have a “best friend at work”. This particular wording was used to indicate that this is a special relationship. The results show that only 30% of the respondents have a best friend at work. Respondents who answered yes are seven times more likely to engage more in their work, they are better at engaging customers, they produce higher quality, have higher well-being and are less likely to be harmed at work. Among respondents who answered no, the likelihood of being engaged is only one in twelve. What matters to engagement is not what people do, but who they are with for whatever purpose6 – an insight that might be interesting to many leaders. Gallup also refers to another study conducted by MIT researchers which monitors conversations and interactions between employees. The results of this study indicate that even simple small talk can lead to large production gains7.
In terms of employee loyalty, the relational is also a critical parameter, depending on the quality of the relationship8. All employees have their “leaving moments”, in which they consider whether to leave the organisation or not. In this process, relationships often play a crucial role. Therefore, it is essential that leaders manage to create a framework for communication and opportunities for social time so that it is possible for employees to establish and maintain deep, close and meaningful relationships that can help keep up hope when we start doubting whether our work makes sense.
The business case for the relational, which is outlined above, is easy to understand, and in many ways, it is a buffer for us at work. It is a well-known resilience factor that affects our habits, our engagement and our ability to cope with adversity – adversity that can be caused by a global crisis that puts pressure on the organisation, but also by more common changes in everyday life that require our optimal readiness for adaption and performance.
The many challenges require us to change ourselves for a while, and therefore, we must constantly dare to risk ourselves as human beings. We must dare to explore a world we do not yet know. As such, that is fine because we as human beings need to satisfy our curiosity by occasionally stepping out of the familiar and finding ourselves in deep water in order to be able to return to something stable and safe again. It is a constant movement between renewal and safe ground, and the basis of our daring lies far back in our development. If we take a deeper dive into this, it will increase complexity. It is all about the level of autonomy we developed in our younger years, which depended on emotional bonds and whether we actually felt that we had something stable and safe to return to when we were exploring the world. Researchers call it the “attachment system”9, and it is an expression of the complexity of patterns of early relational interactions and the psychological experiences we have gained from this that have importance for our adult life.
The vast majority of people have positive and healthy experiences from the time when we learnt to master anxiety-inducing and stressful situations with the help of our primary caregivers who were ready to reassure and support us. Through this relationship, it became possible to explore the world and find a place to return to when the challenges we faced became too threatening to our psychological well-being. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare, is to lose oneself”10, which reminds us that it is always dangerous to explore something new because we might risk losing something – that is the unpredictable moment – but as human beings, it is paradoxically also what allows us to become more aware of ourselves. It is a way of creating identity and a way of learning that is necessary for us. The resources and ability of our caregivers to perform the protective role in our childhood became the starting point of our sense of security and trust, which later in adult life is established as the ability to cope with challenges and stressful situations.11
Applied to organisations, we can rely on researchers who believe that the essential principles or what is called our “psychological working models” can be applied to adult relationships, but without the relationships being identical12. What we have previously learnt can be expressed as the skills or styles we use when we seek out, face and adapt to something new through resilient processes in our working life. Here, too, we will be more or less supported by what we understand as our closest caregivers. In this context, the important other person may be a close colleague or a manager you feel connected to and who has great importance for our stress threshold and engagement in a demanding and change-filled work. As a leader, you are an important “significant other” for the individual employee, and therefore, it is important to understand what may be at stake in the relationship more dynamically.
If we look further into developmental psychology, we can find answers to what the dynamics of a relationship consist of when we bond with each other. Here, you will find knowledge about the complexity and balance of the attachment and exploration behaviour that exists13, which is rarely applied in the context of leadership, even though it can have a major impact on the relational competences and leadership practices. Therefore, when linking this in this article, I outline four different attachment patterns, which are considered relatively stable14,15. Thus, the leader will be seen as a compensatory organisational caregiver, who is involved in an interaction that may also be influenced by the attachment patterns of both parties, thereby further increasing the complexity of the responding process.
The relationship may vary slightly, depending on the pattern of interaction that plays out in the relationship and situation in question, but below are some examples to illustrate the attachment styles of your employees:
Employees who are characterised by a secure attachment pattern and who make up the vast majority (about 60%) will trust you as a leader, assuming that you are ready to help, support and guide them when they are in deep water. Therefore, it would be obvious to delegate even difficult tasks to this type of employee, as they feel confident enough to explore the world, see the task from multiple perspectives, listen to others and deal with the difficulties they may encounter. The employees have learnt that difficulties and stressful situations can be overcome if their resilience is based on the early experience of a safe and secure relationship. Perhaps you know the type of employee who confidently takes on the task and sees it through until the task is done or sparring is needed?
This type of employee has previously experienced caregivers who were emotionally inaccessible, distanced and perhaps preoccupied with their own things. Therefore, they will not expect you to help them; on the contrary, they will expect you to reject them, e.g. because you are in a hurry. They have learnt to fend for themselves and will therefore see no reason to come to you. At the same time, they may find it difficult to conform to authorities, they may behave in a provocative way and may want to retain control. Perhaps you know the type of employee who you do not quite feel connected to because they never get close to you or come to you but rather move in the periphery or simply avoid you on a daily basis?
Here, there may be uncertainty about whether you will be present when help is needed. The employees’ uncertainty may be compounded by e.g. your absence because you attend meetings, courses or take a holiday. Due to the fear of separation from an early caregiver who behaved unpredictably, this type of employee will compensate by using a demanding attachment to you as their leader to maintain contact. This is the type of employee who shows “clingy” behaviour and who constantly demands your attention to a very high extent. They have to know that you are there for them. The employees may be concerned about exploring change, be sensitive to refusal of input, deliveries as well as new initiatives, and they need you as their safe haven. Perhaps you know the type of employee who often hangs around your office and drops by as soon as you turn up for work, especially during times of change or demanding projects?
This type of employee, who is likely to represent a very small percentage (about 5-10%), is almost afraid of you. This type of behaviour is based on their experience with extremely unpredictable attachment behaviours from former close caregivers. Employees may appear confused and difficult to follow or understand because they may say one thing and do something else. They can be difficult to read because you receive opposing signals that cause confusion. What do they mean? Where are they going? Maybe you know the type of employee you do not quite get because you are not completely sure of their intentions or what their behaviour is an expression of?
As a leader, you can (in addition to your own attachment patterns) become more aware of these relational dynamics, which were exemplified above through four different ways of attachment behaviour that are often reflected in the roles which employees take on. Consider how to meet your fellow people in your organisation. Are you available in a concrete but also mental way? Are you emotionally committed to your employees when you approach them? Do you care what the employees ask you to do? Good attachment behaviour is also about your reactions, and more broadly, a leadership task may include creating a context for resilience by focusing on the development of good and strong relational bonds. The quickest way to do this is by creating positive relational experiences together with others, in which the benefits are clearly felt by all those involved.
Over time, if the perception is that the organisational world (goals, ideas and task solutions) can be explored, and at the same time you have a place to find security, if needed, then you are well on your way. If the relationships are characterised by trust, close bonds and intimacy, you will have the opportunity to replay relational patterns and processes, in which you adapt to each other’s attachment and exploration needs in a resilient way through thoughts, feelings and actions. On an underlying level, you can help each other through this. In this way, you influence and develop each other’s psychological resources that support performance.
Thus, you are in the good “company” of great value to both yourself and the organisation, which will inevitably face future challenges and changes that must also be experienced and overcome by you. Moving on to a new post-Corona organisational life, as a leader, it might be the time to stop and consider the relationships you find yourself in and what you are framing in the organisation. Perhaps it is time to assess the quality and importance of your relations and thereby increase your efforts to strengthen the relationship ties, all the while we are completely released by the health authorities from the requirements of social isolation, distancing and physical lack of density that have been necessary for some time.
1 Reivich, K. & Shatté, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
2 Jacob, J., Bond, J., Galinsky, E., & Hill, E. (2008). Six critical ingredients in creating an effective workplace. The Psychologist Manager Journal, 11(1), 141–161.
3 Murthy, V. H. (2020). Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
4 Hersom, C. (2020). Human energy in organisations: New ways to develop resilience, engagement and performance. Implement Press.
5 Rath, T. & Harter, J. (2010). Wellbeing: The five essential elements. Gallup Press.
7 Economist.com. (20 August 2008). Technology Monitor. Every move you make. Retrieved 22 September 2009 from www.economist.com/ science/tm/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11957553
9 Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
10 Kierkegaard, S. (1849). Sygdommen til Døden. En christelig psychologisk Udvikling til Opbyggelse og Opvækkelse af Anti Climacus. C.A. Reitzel 1849.
11 Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1991). Attachments and other affectional bonds across the life cycle. In C. M. Parkes, J. Stevenson-Hinde, & P. Marris (Eds.), Attachment across the life cycle (pp. 33-51). London: Routledge.
12 R. Chris Fraley (2018). “A Brief Overview: Adult Attachment Theory and Research”. Retrieved 24 May 2020 from http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
13 Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28, 759-775.
14 Baldwin, M.W., Fehr, B. (1995). “On the Instability of Attachment Style Ratings”. Personal Relationships. 2 (3): 247–261. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.1995.tb00090.x
15 Kirkpatrick, L., Hazen, C. (1994). “Attachment styles and close relationships: A four-year prospective study”. Personal Relationships. 1 (2): 123–142. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.1994.tb00058.x
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