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People in today’s workplace often face a range of challenges that can seriously undermine wellbeing—from loneliness and exclusion to stress and burnout to conflict with colleagues or managers. A key factor influencing this is unsatisfactory working relationships and the lack of rapport management skills that help address them. Research suggests that many people are dissatisfied with their working relationships, and understanding how to improve them is thus of critical importance. This article explains ways of achieving this.

People sometimes think of personal development as an individual matter. In fact, however, growth is always influenced – for better for worse, and to a greater or lesser extent – by those around us. When our relationships with our co-workers – colleagues, leaders, managers, or direct reports – are problematic, our wellbeing is affected, and this will negatively affect our growth. Positive relationships are key to wellbeing and growth, but how can this be achieved? This article explains three steps that HR managers can take.

1. Understand what triggers positive or negative rapport

First, it is important to understand what the key triggers are that affect whether rapport is positive or negative. We call these the GAAFFE Triggers:

G

Goals: Do you understand each other’s goals and are they aligned?

A

Autonomy–Control: Are you aligned in the amount of freedom or direction that you each want in order to do your work well?

A

Attention–Inattention: Are you aligned in the amount of attention/collaboration or independence that you each want in order to do your work well?

F

Face: Are you supportive of each other’s/everyone’s need for respect and inclusion?

F

Fairness: Are you treating each other/everyone fairly?

E

Ethicality: Are you each acting with integrity and promoting ethical behavior?

For instance, consider the following authentic example:

Christoph works for a scientific consultancy company. He is an ambitious and hard-working young man, keen to perform well, get promoted and to earn more money. He has been given increasing responsibility and praised for his work. However, he found out that colleagues in a different division of his company were being promoted more quickly than in his division and were earning more money. He spoke to his boss, Robert, about this. Robert acknowledged that Christoph was performing above his grade but said that, in his view, staff should not be considered for promotion until they had worked in their role for a set period of time. Christoph was unhappy about this response from his boss and started looking for another job.

In this case, Christoph’s goals were thwarted by his boss, and he felt he was being treated unfairly. This triggered a negative reaction, both towards his boss and the company. Yet his boss seemed unaware of the impact on Christoph of his response.

This brings us to the second key point.

2. Explore employee experiences of working relationships

The second step is to find out how employees are feeling about their working relationships. For this, it is particularly valuable not only to explore how far they are having a positive experience of each of the GAAFFE triggers, but also to ask how important the issue is to them personally. This is because, despite all of the GAAFFE triggers consistently affecting people’s perceptions of the quality of working relationships, individual priorities may nevertheless vary. What is especially annoying or upsetting for one person, may be less critical for another. In addition, contextual factors play a big role. 

In recent research, using a tool known as the Relationship Management Profiler to probe employee attitudes towards their line manager, it emerged that all respondents rated mutual understanding and awareness of Goals to be important or very important. However, over 25% reported that their experience of this was low or very low, indicating there was a clear issue that needed addressing for more than one-quarter of the participants of the study. Sometimes, if the figures are given the other way round, for example, that 75% are having a positive experience, it can sound high and give the impression that all is well. However, it is important to consider the details.  

This raises another issue: the danger of relying on mean or summary scores. revant behavior is likely to vary from person to person and from department to department. As a result, overall ratings may easily mask some fundamental issues of concern. Even within one setting, the experiences of different individuals may vary because of personal differences and interpersonal ‘chemistry.’ So, it is always important to look at the full range of responses, and not to ignore low experiential ratings, even when they are given by a small minority. Even 15% negative ratings can have a detrimental effect on employee morale, and for the individuals concerned it can have a significant negative impact on their wellbeing.

So, what can be done? This brings us to the third step.

3. Support rapport skills development

Insights from Step 2 will indicate the issues and contexts that are in particular need of attention. Here, we note some key relationship management strategies for taking action. They can be divided into three broad areas:

  • Attend: pay close attention to what people say or do and how others react
  • Think: reflect on what you notice, using key concepts such as the GAAFFE triggers to make sense of it
  • Engage: find ways of connecting with others and of empowering them as much as possible. In addition, tackle difficult issues and flex where possible to accommodate individual preferences.  

By helping employees and managers to engage more in these three steps, progress can be made towards a more inclusive workplace culture that support wellbeing. 

Helen Spencer-Oatey is Managing Director of GlobalPeople Consulting Ltd. and Emeritus Professor at the University of Warwick. She is well known internationally for her work on rapport management and is co-author, with Domna Lazidou, of Making Working Relationships Work: The TRIPS Toolkit for handling relationship challenges and promoting rapport (Castledown, 2024).

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