Ad - Mindset builds future - top banner
Building Happy Relationships in the Workplace
NOVEMBER 2013 · 
Keywords: team, corporate culture, workplace relationships
Good workplace relationships promote employees work efficiency. Professor Xiaoping CHEN, world-renowned researcher on relationships, indicated that psycho-solutions are often more effective than sheer stimulus packages in securing this effect.
A typical Google office

In Denmark, employees of LEGO Group equip their offices with toys of various kinds, and CEO Lars Rebien Sørensen of Novo Nordisk shares an office with a dozen of secretaries and staff. 

In Silicon Valley of the US, Facebook offers doctors, masseurs and physiotherapists for its employees, and Google prepares baby rooms for its female employees. 

In Hong Kong, government authorities give lectures and workshops for local companies to develop trust among managers and employees. While in Pearl River Delta area of Southern China, some manufacturing companies establish the “employees’ happiness” office to create an enjoyable workplace. 

From North Europe to North America, from Hong Kong to mainland China, there is a trend among companies to focus more on building a working environment that can make employees happy. However, it means not only a better material environment but also a better psychological space within the company, i.e., better interpersonal relationships among employees. What kinds of interpersonal relationships at workplace can really make employees happy?

“The simpler the relationships are, the more likely it is for employees to work happily,” indicated Professor Xiaoping CHEN, Chair of the Department of Organization and Management of Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, an honorary professor of the School of Business Management at Fudan University. She is a world-renowned researcher on relationships. In an exclusive interview with FBK, she indicated straightforwardly, “If everyone in an organization can take things as they are instead of taking them personally, then they will be able to work more happily within this kind of easy-going workplace relationships.” 

In this interview, Professor CHEN explored how a business or an organization could build the right kinds of interpersonal relationships to make its employee feel happy at work from the three perspectives of leader-staff, staff-staff and staff-organization relationships. 

Leaders: anything better than “carrots”? 

In the interpersonal relationships within an organization, the leader undoubtedly plays the most important role. We have seen quite frequently leaders are accustomed to using “carrots” and “sticks” in handling the relationships with their subordinates. However, do these two measures make employees feel happy? 

“I think both are unsatisfactory and unhelpful for the development of good interpersonal relationships within an organization,” said Professor CHEN. Since both “carrots” and “sticks” lack in long-term effectiveness, what other option can leaders choose? 

“In the interpersonal relationships within an organization, the leader plays an important role in creating meanings for the work of his/her subordinates,” said Professor CHEN. This is a new concept in the “incentive theory” of psychology: if leaders can help their subordinates become aware of the meanings of their work, they will be motivated to work harder and longer. For example, the head of the Medical Equipment Sales Department at Johnson & Johnson asks his sales representatives to go into surgery rooms together with the surgeons in order to demonstrate or even instruct the surgeons how to use their equipment in diagnosing patients and saving patients’ lives. This practice allows the sales representatives to see clearly that their work is meaningful because they can help save lives. As a result, they are more strongly driven to work harder and longer by the desire to save lives than simply by the shallow desire to earn more commissions from more sales. 

In practice, leaders can use the method of “incentive outsourcing” in order to demonstrate the meanings of work clearly to their staff. In the science of organizational behaviors, “incentive outsourcing” refers to finding and using external resources to motivate staff. According to Professor CHEN’s latest research, if leaders advocate directly in front of their subordinates the meaning of their work, the subordinates are most likely to turn a deaf ear to it and believe the leaders are doing so only for the sake of their own interests. Under such circumstances, it is better to invite those who has benefited or will benefit from the subordinates’ work to talk to them and make them realize the meanings of their work. For example, when encouraging alumni to make donations to their alma maters, it is better to invite those students who have benefited from their donations to describe to them how their generosity have significantly helped their lives, instead of just organizing meetings of the alumni and sending school officials to talk about how their donations can help those students in need. The former method will be more effective in boosting the enthusiasm among alumni to make donations. 

To sum up, leaders should play the role as “the bridge” in promoting staff’s identification with the organization and boosting their enthusiasm for work. In addition, “incentive outsourcing” can be used to make employees more intuitively aware of the values and benefits of their work for themselves and others so that they will be more motivated to work harder and longer. 

Solutions for conflicts: stimulating packages or psycho-solutions? 

The most common problem in a team is “relationship conflicts”. The failures of many teams often stem from inharmonious relationships within them. 

There are many reasons for relationship conflicts. The most fundamental one is differences among team members in their value systems. According to psychological research, similarity breeds liking among people. Differences in social categorization (such as ethnic backgrounds) are likely to result in disliking. “However, in a team with its members coming from a diversified variety of backgrounds, such as different countries or ethnic backgrounds, it is less likely for them to have relationship conflicts. Moreover, with more diversified backgrounds of its members, the team will benefit more in terms of creativity and decision making,” said Professor CHEN. 

“The so-called ‘social dilemma’ is actually a kind of relationship conflicts within a team or a group of people due to their interest conflicts.” For example, if a person am on a team of three that is assigned a task, he will think if it is possible for him to work less since the other two members are very competent and will finish the task on their own or if he work too hard and do most of the work, the other two will benefit instead. Therefore, he is in a dilemma: how much should he contribute to the team? 

Reasonably speaking, of course it is better to do less of the work and wait until the others to finish the task. However, if every member in a team has this kind of mentality, the team will only end up with failures and everyone in the team will suffer. If everyone makes his or her due contributions, the team will be able to complete the task and everyone will benefit. “Under such circumstances, how you weigh between the importance of your interests and the importance of the team’s interest will decide how much you will contribute and work with the other team members,” said Professor CHEN. 

Then what are the measures that can effectively alleviate interest conflicts within a team? 

From the economic perspective, a team leader can change the remuneration system to pay more to those who are willing to cooperate with the others and less to those who are not. “However, this kind of economic solution is more costly for it can only be realized mainly by changing the team’s system and putting in place a carrot-and-stick system.” 

By contrast, a psychological solution to the same problem does not have any cost at all. How to come up with a psychological solution then? Professor CHEN answered, “

According to classic research findings, the answer lies in communication. Through communication, everyone can talk about the ‘social dilemma’ within their team and then greatly improve their willingness to work together.” In other words, it is very important to encourage frequent communication among team members in order to build among them a kind of awareness that “the success of the team is my success”. “If you have this kind awareness, you will find your personal interests less important to you and you will be more willing to work with your team members.” If people find the other members in the team are quite willing to work together with them, they will become more willing to work as a team. According to Professor CHEN, psychological solutions require more “artistic” measures to boost the sense of collective identification among team members, build specific norms on how to work together, and then solve the relationship conflicts within the team. Moreover, the positive results of psychological solutions in solving relationship conflicts will be much more lasting than those of economic solutions. 

Company = big Family? 

In business management, people frequently talk about whether or not the company is a big family for its employees. 

Professor CHEN does not agree with the idea that the company is a big family. “Chinese employers always stresses that the company is a big family that takes good care of its employee. However, when the company is in trouble, they never hesitate to cut employees’ salaries or even fire employees in large quantities. If the company were truly a ‘big family’, they should take good care of their employees no matter how the employees perform. Since they cannot do that, they should not have claimed to be what they are not for and it is not beneficial for the company at all.” 

According to her, references can be found in the practice of US companies. The relationships between American businesses/organizations and their employees are apparently based on exchange—the employees exchange their work performance for different kinds of compensations, including salaries, stock options, free beverage, free gym membership and even some perks that seems excessive in the eyes of Chinese employers. US companies seldom talk about the concept of “company as a big family” but what they do makes their staff feel the company is their home. “It is not something intended by American companies but some unexpected ‘side-effects’. Therefore, it is actually a matter of balance.” 

Which organization can make employees happier? 

Where can employees find more happiness at work? Eastern organizations or Western organizations? For-profit organizations or not-for-profit ones? 

“In terms of cultural backgrounds, it is easier to develop helpful interpersonal relationships with colleagues in Western organizations than in Eastern ones,” said Professor CHEN. It is because people in the West do not take the interpersonal relationships with their colleagues as seriously as people in the East and they are less troubled by relationship problems with their colleagues. For example, in the US, people separate their relationships at work and in personal life very clearly. They work with a group of people in the office and hang out with another group of people in private. In Eastern cultures, interpersonal relationships with colleagues are often seen as a kind of tool; however, people are prone to taking such relationships personally and emotionally. This makes the interpersonal relationships a kind of burden that is difficult to solve. “Indeed, people are emotional beings no matter what cultural background they come from. However, once emotional factors are involved in the work place, it is difficult for people to take things as they are without being personal.” 

Professor CHEN also indicated that, in charity organizations or NGOs, it is easier to develop the right kind of interpersonal relationships that can make employees enjoy their work more. The employees of such organizations generally have a stronger sense of mission and better understanding of the meanings of their work for society. They are dedicated to serving society and solving social problems. Compared with employees in profit organizations, they share more similar goals at work while their focus on personal interests is significantly weaker. The commonality in their value systems will bring them closer to each other and make them more driven at work. “

In the US, there are many non-profit organizations. Their employees generally do not enjoy high salaries but they still enjoy their work a lot.”

Xiaoping CHEN
Professor of Management, Philip M. Condit Endowed Chair in Business Administration, and Chair of Department of Management and Organization in Michael G. Foster School of Business, University of Washington. Her research interest covers Cooperation and competition, global leadership, entrepreneur passion, creativity, Chinese guanxi, cross-cultural management.
About FBK
Fudan Business Knowledge (FBK) was created by Business Knowledge Development and Communication Center, which is affiliated with Fudan University School of Management, and is a media platform for dissemination and sharing of business knowledge.
Guided by its vision that “Mindset Builds Future” and backed by the solid academic foundation of Fudan University, FBK is dedicated to sharing current business topics, academic research from home and abroad with business celebrities and the public, and exploring sources of innovation for China’s local businesses.
FBK products include FBKonline (bk.fudan.edu.cn) in Chinese and English languages, iFBK, FBK TV and related publications. iFBK is available on android and iPhone/iPad applications, weibo and weixin, and enables readers to customize the content for reading on their mobile applications.
About KDCC
Business Knowledge Development and Communication Center (KDCC) was created in 2010 as a subsidiary of Fudan University School of Management to produce and broadcast innovative business knowledge products.
It serves as a bridge between the School, enterprises and the society through its publications and multiple platforms, to promote the combination of management theories with management practices and build a source of lifelong learning for the public. It shares the following resources:
FBK: a virtual business school that offers e-learning for anytime at any place;
Case research and development: the development of local business cases in China and the exchange of case services between the School and overseas peers, which are expected to offer practical guidance for the growing Chinese firms and overseas firms in Chinese market.
Academic Steering Committee for FBK:
Professor Qiuzhi XUE, Associate Dean, Department of Business Administration. His general management interests are focused on the management of international business and on the strategic and organizational challenges confronting managers in multinational corporations. He maintains ongoing research interests in the organization and management of multinational enterprise, particularly in transforming of big companies in global network economy and in marketing behavior of multinational corporations in China. He also has great interest in the cross-border subjects of management, economics and sociology.
Professor Qingyun JIANG, Chair of Department of Marketing. His research interests are marketing channel, B2B marketing, marketing theory, marketing strategy of China's enterprise, corporate strategy.
Professor Qiying HU, Department of Management Science. His research interests are supply chain management and revenue management, auction and online auction, dynamic decision making and control, portfolio and risk management.
Associate Professor Li XU, Department of Finance. Her research interests are corporate finance, financial markets, financial institutions.
 Associate Professor Pei SUN, Department of Industrial Economics. His research interests are corporate governance, industrial organization, industrial policy, strategic management.
KDCC Team Members
Executive Director: Baoping YU

Editorial Director: Bonnie WANG

Content Editors: Peggy PAN
Sunnie HUANG

Video Editor: Xinjie YAO

Case Researcher: Yangbo CHEN
Huaying YANG

New Media and Marketing Director: Elsa CHEN

Visual Art: Yun DAI

Administration: Xiaonan MA

Links to FBK:
Official website: http://www.bk.fudan.edu.cn
FBK on Sina Weibo: http://weibo.com/fudankdcc
FBK on Tencent Weibo http://t.qq.com/kdcc_fudan
FBK’s ID on Weixin: BKfudan
FBK’s APP download addresses:
Editorial Dept.
Room 615, Li Dasan Building, No.670 Guoshun Road, Yangpu District, Shanghai.
Tel: 8621-25011384
Case Center
Tel: 8621-25011385.
Users Service
Tel: 8621-25011381.
Marketing& Cooperation
Tel: 8621-20511387.
Fudan Business Knowledge is an affiliate of the School of Management, Fudan University for disseminating business knowledge and exchanging management practices among academicians, professionals and entrepreneurs at home and abroad. By logging on our website BKonline, the virtual knowledge community, or installing our mobile application, you can acquire new knowledge, keep abreast of the latest research findings and current affairs in the business world, or interact with specialists and counterparts in your field. Knowledge Powers Future!
Copyright Statement
businessknowledge.fudan.edu.cn has the exclusive right to disseminate and broadcast all the content contained herein, including video, articles and photos, of which the businessknowledge.fudan.edu.cn owns the copyright and/or other related rights, and/or has the effective authorization from the original copyright proprietors. No person, organization and/or company shall copy, disseminate or broadcast the above-mentioned content for any purpose without prior permission by businessknowledge.fudan.edu.cn.
The copyright of the content (of all kinds, including articles, questions and related answers) which is published at the online community or any opinion release section on businessknowledge.fudan.edu.cn is owned by publishers themselves. Any act of copying, disseminating or broadcasting the above-mentioned content is not allowed for any purpose without publishers' prior permission.
businessknowledge.fudan.edu.cn does not allow its users to publish on the website any content of which they don't own the copyright, for any act of copyright infringement is not permitted by the website.

All rights reserved by Fudan University School of Managment