Five Ways to Strengthen the Employee-Employer Relationship in 2023

Organizational experts offer insights on how to make meaningful changes to engage employees in the coming year.

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Over the past year, we’ve seen that the ideas from MIT Sloan Management Review authors who focus on studying leadership, organizational behavior, and employee voice have been particularly important for our readers as they’ve navigated leading hybrid teams, hiring and retaining workers in a challenging job market, and developing stronger corporate cultures that support the shifting needs of employees today.

With that in mind, we asked experts who study employee behavior and manager effectiveness the following question: How can leadership teams and managers strengthen the employee-employer relationship in 2023?

Make Meaningful Work Design Changes, Big or Small

Anthony C. Klotz, associate professor of organizational behavior in the UCL School of Management at University College London and coauthor of “How Good Citizens Enable Bad Leaders”:

Before 2020, the structure of jobs evolved sluggishly and unimaginatively, despite evidence that traditional ways of working often harmed employee well-being. The past two years have provided leaders with an opportunity to rethink how their employees work. Those seizing this chance are applying an R&D mindset to how jobs are designed, with the goal of structuring work in ways that allow their employees to thrive while on the job and in their nonwork lives as well. It is these forward-thinking leaders who will make 2023 the most innovative year ever when it comes to how people work.

The work redesigns that grab headlines involve relatively big changes, such as four-day workweeks, hybrid work schedules, and sabbaticals. These breakthroughs are impactful, but many meaningful work design changes are small and made on an individual basis, such as by reassigning a part of an employee’s job that they can’t stand or allowing them to shift their hours forward so that they can pick up children from school. And, big or small, changes to work design can be low cost, making them one of the smartest investments that leaders can make in the face of an economic downturn.


To Resolve Conflict and Strengthen Relationships, Pay Attention to Emotions

Constance N. Hadley, organizational psychologist, founder of Institute for Life at Work, lecturer at Boston University Questrom School of Business, and coauthor of “Are Your Team Members Lonely?” which was awarded the 2022 Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize:

Over the past few years, employees and employers have implicitly been renegotiating the terms of their relationships, a process that has evoked a lot of feelings. Deep down, I think many people are hurt. CEOs are hurt that people keep jumping ship or refusing to come to the office. Midlevel managers are hurt that pressures have increased to care for their employees without commensurate attention to their own needs. Individual contributors and junior managers are hurt that they aren’t trusted to get their work done while engaging remotely.

Powerful negative emotions can sink relationships, especially if they manifest as hypercriticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These are the behavioral indicators found by therapist John Gottman to predict which marital relationships will end in divorce. They might also be the signs of doom for work relationships.

To avoid this fate, leaders must pay careful attention to the emotional patterns at work, starting with their own. Strong relationships are built on feelings of mutual respect, empathy, and care. If resentment, blame, and apathy are more common, it is essential to seek new ways of resolving conflicts and relating to one another at work. A long-lasting and successful employee-employer relationship depends on it.


Recognize Who Your Employees Are as Individuals

Bobbi Thomason, assistant professor of applied behavioral science at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School and coauthor of “How Organizations Can Take a Lead in Protecting Reproductive Rights”:

If leadership teams and managers want to strengthen relationships with their employees, they should recognize and treat their employees as whole people. This means learning about and attending to their individual needs, including their ambitions, health, and passions. It also requires awareness of their relationships with those around them at home and at work, including their family caretaking responsibilities or the dynamics of inclusion or exclusion within their work team. Finally, leadership teams and managers should consider how their organization’s work impacts their communities in the world around them and how employees can be proud and excited to contribute to the organization’s impact.


Learn What You Don’t Know — and Act Meaningfully on It

Jim Detert, the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and coauthor of “Saving Management From Our Obsession With Leadership”:

In recent years, we’ve talked a lot, and rightly so, about fear in workplaces — for example, in discussions of psychological safety, courage, and inclusive leadership. For much of what ails today’s workplaces, addressing a sense of futility is just as important.

That employees think speaking up or trying harder is just not worthwhile isn’t something new, even though heightened attention to employee disengagement, reduced effort, and quitting may lead us to believe so. For decades, organizational behavior researchers have documented all sorts of negative outcomes associated with employees concluding that their contributions and ideas are going unheard or unvalued.

What to do?

Create a reasonably safe way for employees to give you unvarnished input to sufficiently open-ended questions. Some that I like:

  • What are the follies around here? That is, what do we say we care about but then clearly disincentivize via what we measure, celebrate, and reward or punish? (This stems from Steve Kerr’s classic “On the Folly of Hoping for A, While Rewarding B.”)
  • What undiscussables would we discuss if we decided to finally discuss things that have been undiscussable? (I heard this funny but powerful question posed many years ago by Chris Argyris.)
  • What doesn’t feel safe to say that, if addressed, would make you more committed to stay?
  • What are the biggest boulders blocking our path to being a great place to work?

If you ask questions like these, I guarantee you’re going to get valuable, eye-opening input. If you don’t, you didn’t create a safe context.

Then do something meaningful to address what you’ve learned. And make sure what you do is directly connected back to the input you received: “Thank you for telling me X. I heard you, and to start making things better, today we’ll start doing Y. And we’ll hold ourselves accountable for improvement by measuring Z.”

It’s not rocket science, but it does require humility and a commitment to act. And it works.


Positively Shape Work Design to Build Trust and Support Well-Being

Caroline Knight, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Transformative Work Design at Curtin University’s Future Work Institute in Western Australia and coauthor of “The Loneliness of the Hybrid Worker”:

The nature of work is increasingly characterized by hybrid work and digitization, allowing employees to work anywhere, anytime. It is important to remember, however, that the principles of good work design still apply whether your employees are working from home or the office. Managers design work and therefore are best placed to ensure that the work design of their employees is optimal. Work that is varied allows individuals control over where, when, and how they do their work; offers opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with others; comprises manageable demands; is stimulating and motivational; and leads to better well-being and performance.

Managers who avoid micromanaging and closely monitoring employees build higher trust with their employees, allowing them to work in ways that suit them best and manage their home and work demands effectively. It is also important to check in — as opposed to checking up — on how your employees are doing in terms of well-being. Checking in means offering support to employees and allowing them to voice worries and stresses without fear of repercussions. Managers can often help employees resolve or alleviate many issues by offering resources, helping individuals reprioritize, signposting to relevant services, and so on, before a problem escalates.

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Comment (1)
Stuart Roehrl
Excellent survey - thank you very much.  Well-written review.  Looking forward to reading these,
Stuart Roehrl