Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | May 3, 2010

HR Concepts: Building Future Relationships

By Mike Deblieux, SPHR

Margaret Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, points out that everything in our universe, from atoms to people, depends on relationships. Nothing happens by itself. Every “thing” depends on another “thing” to make it matter. In HR, the “thing” is people relating to people. Workplace relationships are not stagnant. They start. They grow. They falter. They stop. They start anew. A proactive HR program develops them and supports them. A strategic HR program looks ahead to build them into the future aspirations of an organization.

HR can create and foster relationships in many ways. Encouraging senior professionals to mentor their less experienced counterparts is one example. Mentoring helps an organization pass skills, insights, and leadership from one generation to another. Most successful people will tell you about a mentor who was an important part of their success. They will explain that their mentor offered perspective, insights, brutally honest feedback, direct, unapologetic advice, and, unwavering support to their career. If you listen carefully, you will hear them tell you that they were lucky to find and have their mentor. They will often tell you that their relationship with their mentor grew out of a happenstance encounter.

An organization can no longer depend on a chance connection to grow future talent. It must find formal and informal methods to facilitate the exchange of wisdom, knowledge, and abilities between generations of workers. HR is in a unique position to facilitate the mentoring process.  One Hr program, for example, enhanced the concept of mentoring to develop an advocacy program. An advocate is more proactive than a mentor is. A mentor is available (i.e., Can I ask you what you think about my report?). An advocate intercedes with action steps to help a protégé develop (i.e., I want to meet with you before you write your report to help you plan it.). An advocate, might for example, invite you to attend an Executive Committee meeting to expose you to the methods senior leaders use to make decisions; create a project opportunity to provide you with a unique career experience; or, introduce you to key people to expand your professional network. The resulting relationships will have a long-term impact on talent management.

The stereotypical view of a mentor is a young professional paired with a senior executive who plays the role of advisor, teacher and coach. The stereotype is out of date. Early career workers bring a unique set of ideas, skills, and perspectives to the workplace. Mid and late career workers can and should learn from their early career counterparts. A younger worker, for example, can explain, teach, and guide a senior colleague through the complexities of a software program. A younger worker can explain the collaborative instincts and experiences of his or her generation in real life terms to supervisors and managers. In short, mentoring is no longer a one-way street. A learning organization maximizes learning opportunities up, down and across the workforce.

Mentoring is one way to build relationships. Social networking is another. Social networking may not immediately come to mind when you think of workplace relationships. In fact, you might think of it as an inappropriate workplace behavior. It is, however, part of the changing face of how we interact and get to know each other at work. Employer sponsored internal social networks provide an opportunity for employees at all levels to share ideas, concepts, and suggestions. They encourage constant evaluation and re-evaluation of decisions, actions, and program directions. They stimulate creativity and innovation through free flowing collaboration.

In many ways, a corporate sponsored social network is the 21st century break room. It is a place where people go for a brief respite from work, but still bring work with them. It is an electronic room where unplanned encounters create energy and synergy. It is a spot where workplace relationships develop and flourish. An organization cannot afford to banish it. It must find ways to facilitate it for the benefit of internal and external constituents.

This article opened by saying that the “thing” in HR is relationships. Relationships are fluid. They change from one day to the next. An organization cannot depend on past relationships. It must constantly foster new ones. HR must be an integral part of building relationships that carry an organization into the future. It must be a strategic partner. It must foster interactions that stimulate creative thinking, successful partnerships, and innovative initiatives.

The challenge for HR is to create a balance between too much and too little structure. Effective relationships are not forced. They grow from a nurturing and supportive environment. An unlikely example is a group of smokers outside the entrance of a building. This smoker’s circle is an informal, unsanctioned group. They may flaunt the corporate rest break policy. They may cause harm to their lungs. Nevertheless, they do one very positive thing – they develop close personal ties with each other. Stand with them one day and listen. They regale in the spontaneous exchange of information about every facet of the organization (and life). There is no formal structure to a smoker’s circle. There is a lot of relationship building.

(Note to the Surgeon General) None of this discussion suggests that people take up smoking. It does suggest that a strategic HR leader searches for a balance between structured and unstructured programs that build workplace relationships for the future. It recognizes that spontaneity is a critical ingredient in successful relationships. It challenges you as an HR professional to create a non-smokers, non-smoking circle to build relationships within your organization.

Ethnography is the study and systematic recording of human cultures. Some ethnographers conduct their studies within organizations. Their findings point to a number of factors that influence workplace relationships. Workspace, for example, determines who is included and not included in day-to-day interactions – yet rarely does HR participate in the process of workspace planning. Distractions, such as spontaneous interruptions to workplace tranquility (i.e., where to go for lunch), create a bond between people that encourages creative thinking and sharing – yet seldom does HR create or encourage distractions such as a wiki for employees to share personal restaurant reviews of neighborhood eateries. Stories about work and working reinforce taboos, provide insights into challenging assignments, and create mythology about work and working within an organization – yet seldom does HR propagate such sharing through internal social networks. In short, every HR professional should have a little piece of ethnography in his or her repertoire.

(Note to HR professionals reading this article) None of this is to say that HR is not doing the job it is supposed to do. It is to say that there is a ripe opportunity for HR to make a strategic difference in the future success of an organization. The “thing” in HR is relationships. The job of HR is to build them, to foster them, and to celebrate them.

Mike Deblieux, SPHR is a trainer and coach for front-line leaders. He has been a compensation analyst, HR Director and consultant in his career. He is a past president of PIHRA. He has written HR Concepts since August 1995 to help you understand and apply fundamental HR ideas, thoughts, and processes. Share your feedback on this article with Mike at
Copyright 2010 PIHRA

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