Work is a (Dysfunctional) Relationship

For the past several decades, we’ve been trying to understand why so many of our employees are dissatisfied and unhappy at work. Depending who you ask, somewhere between half and more than three-fourths of employees are just not feeling it.

And, it’s not isolated to any particular job, level, or industry. In one of my last corporate jobs, I had a nice cushy executive gig. Big title, big office, big paycheck and all the other perks that most assume make it impossible not to love your job. But, I was miserable. As a result, I wasn’t very present or patient with my family, I was eating and drinking way too much, and my work product wasn’t up to my own standards.

Like so many others, I was disengaged—emotionally and mentally disconnected—but still showing up each day to go through the motions and collect my paycheck. Most of us have been there at some point in our career. You don’t need to be an expert to understand the impact this can have on an organization. Under-performing, unhappy people showing up to work every day is not a recipe for business growth.

If you’ve been in management for any length of time, you know that there are innumerable management approaches and theories that claim to be the answer. It can feel overwhelming. It seems like a complex problem to solve.

But, the answer might be simpler than you think. It starts with recognizing how organizations have traditionally viewed work: as a contract. We pay you, you do the work. Everything else within the organization is designed to ensure employee compliance to this contact—management, policies, performance appraisals, etc.

Here’s the problem: Employees don’t experience work as a contract. Research study after research study shows that what drives employee satisfaction and engagement are the following:


This doesn’t sound like a contact. In fact, if you only saw these four things on a list, you’d probably assume we were talking about the quality of a relationship, not our experience at work. Therein lies the disconnect.

Employees experience work as a relationship.

As human beings, we are inherently motivated by the desire for connection and acceptance. These needs don’t go away when we show up for work. Work is just another relationship in our lives, albeit a pretty important one when you consider how much time we spend with work.

When you consider these competing views of work, it becomes pretty clear why the disengagement is happening. Imagine a marriage where one person craves connection, trust, and appreciation, and the other is only interested in compliance with the contract (“you said love and obey…”). That’s a recipe for unhappiness and divorce.

A great relationship, on the other hand, lifts us up, makes us happy, and creates a powerful bond. I’ll sacrifice for, protect, and defend my closest relationships, and they would do the same for me. Isn’t this the same kind of commitment we dream about from employees?

To create high-performing organizations, we must redesign the work experience through the lens of a relationship. Thankfully, most of us have had good, bad, healthy, and unhealthy relationships to use as a reference point.

As a place to start, take a critical look at your organization and its practices, asking the question, “Does this build or damage the relationship with employees?” Here are a few places to examine first:

Manager interaction. When I asked my young daughter how she knows if someone loves her, she said, “they spend time with me.” Time is the currency of relationships. Managers are the most powerful experience of the organization for an employee. So, if the manager won’t make time for an employee and doesn’t spend time, what message does that send to the employee about their importance?

Communication. Being in a relationship with someone who only talks at you but never listens to you is incredibly frustrating. The greek philosopher Epictetus famously said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” When you step back and look at it, how much talking at versus listening to employees happens at your organization?

Feedback vs. encouragement. We talk a lot about the importance of feedback. But, when we say feedback we mean, “Let me tell you where you failed or fall short so you can get better.” How often do you give this kind of feedback to your best friend or spouse? In our most important relationships, we give each other much more encouragement and appreciation than we do critical feedback. If we were always critical, we’d likely not have many relationships. What ratio do your employees experience?

Employee handbook and policy manuals. When you read over the content you share with new hires, does it invite employees into a relationship with the organization? Or does it send the message that non-compliance will be punished?

As leaders and organizations, we can no longer treat employees as contractually obligated laborers. We have decades of evidence that this model is broken. Instead, we must actively work to create relationships with each of these uniquely gifted human beings so that we might grow and succeed together towards achieving our goals.

About the author: Jason Lauritsen a keynote speaker, author and advisor. He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. Jason is co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. Connect with Jason at

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