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The Rise of the Chief Relationship Officer

What if every company had someone responsible for the relationship health of their employees?

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Listen up, Employers.

It’s time to take a long, hard look at the fact that we’re not always getting along well with one another at work. Our dysfunctional workplace relationships are impacting our well-being, and our organizations are suffering. Interpersonal conflict at work is seen as one of the most toxic of work stressors (Bolger, DeLongis, Kessler, & Schilling, 1989; Smith & Sulsky, 1995). In CPP’s “Global Human Capital Report,” clashing egos was the leading cause of conflict in the office. In the past, they found that 49% of all recorded workplace conflicts were a result of clashing personalities. Research shows that 27% of employees involved in workplace conflicts have experienced personal attacks. Meanwhile, 25% of employees have called in sick or skipped work, and 80% of employees suffer from work-related stress (American Institute of Stress, 2018). In fact, 58% of employees have quit work due to negative office politics (Randstad, 2018). 

Beyond the research, I know this because many of you have hired me to help you — both individually and teams — navigate dysfunctional workplace dynamics. I’ve observed, assessed, and intervened to show you how to work more effectively with one other, and improved workplace culture and increased productivity. A real life Wendy Rhoades from “Billions,” minus the ah, you know, sorry to disappoint!

The workplace is where many of us will experience feeling betrayed, gaslit, undermined, and lonely. It’s well documented that people don’t leave their jobs, they leave the people they work with. On the flip side, people who have a “best friend” at work are more likely to stay — even if it means getting paid more somewhere else. High functioning teams with solid working relationships drive employee satisfaction, retention, creativity, innovation — and profitability.

There is no doubt that interpersonal conflict negatively influences your business outcomes. However, as soon as the conflict has become properly managed — because some conflict doesn’t ever get truly resolved — business productivity again resumes and in so many cases, increases.

My challenge for you is to develop a role in your company exclusively focused on the workplace relationship health and well-being of your employees. A successful person in this role will help you increase your profits, increase job satisfaction, morale, engagement, and not to mention, retention. You can call this person the Chief Relationship Officer. Yes, they should be on your executive leadership team, but the title itself doesn’t actually matter. Redefine the role of the Chief People Officer, if you prefer. Whatever you call it, you need to have a person whose job description focuses on the relationship dynamics in your organization.

The need for a professional leader to focus on relationships within the workplace has never been more essential than now as the remote workplace has become the new normal. Spontaneous workplace café and pantry conversations (you remember, the old “water cooler” meet up) are no longer and people don’t have the opportunity to informally or formally connect with each other, an important ingredient to building trust among team members.

Workplace cultures are changing rapidly, accelerated at breakneck speed by the current global pandemic. This radical change in the way we are now working compounded by the economic and social pressures that already existed showcase an unmet need for worker support. In fact, three times as many U.S. adults reported symptoms of serious psychological distress in April compared with two years earlier, according to a study in the medical journal JAMA. With the recent changes and continued uncertainty in our world, people are reporting higher levels of exhaustion, isolation, and challenges with setting boundaries, and besides, relationship dynamics are an integral part of how workplace culture is expressed in organizations. 

The Chief Relationship Officer can help individuals create psychological boundaries to protect themselves from the emotional stress and negative impact that challenging workplace relationships can create. Thus, another role for the Chief Relationship Officer is to help people with their relationship to themselves (think self-care). More specifically, the skill-set that the Chief Relationship Officer requires a deep understanding of: 

  • Mental health (including diagnoses) and life challenges (developmental as well as transitional) that people face, including deep insight and clarity into the human psyche
  • The interplay of behavior really being a function of both the person and environment
  • Interpersonal processes that impact decision making and problem solving
  • Workplace relationship dynamics to support and coach individuals and management teams within challenging, fast-paced environments 

The Chief Relationship Officer must also have the skillset to be able to transform through the focus on relationships and thus must have the ability to:

  • Create a safe place for both individuals and teams to move towards growth, authenticity, and effectiveness — from gridlock to dialogue.
  • Engage groups and individuals to craft sustainable solutions while acting as a process observer to prevent dysfunctional team dynamics, such as Group Think.
  • Create and maintain healthy boundaries in one’s own relationships while promoting those in others.
  • Flex leadership and counseling style, transitioning from supporter to challenger to guide.
  • Build and develop a strong workplace culture through defining and operationalizing workplace values.
  • Lead in the midst of interpersonal and/or intrapersonal conflict.
  • Help people come up with solutions for how to manage their relationships in the workplace and how to work more effectively with the team (whether with a subordinate, peer, or manager).
  • Teach emotional intelligence to others.
  • Recognize and actively work to protect against institutional “isms” (racism, sexism, ageism) in the workplace.

The investment in this role will reap great benefits. For example, the World Health Organization estimates that for every dollar U.S. employers invest in mental health interventions, they receive a $4-return in improved productivity (2019). Ultimately, an effective Chief Relationship Officer focuses on the optimization of behavioral effectiveness and potential through a focus on relationship health within the workplace, which will result in a competitive advantage for your organization.

This article was originally published on the Founders Foundry.

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