Relational Coordination – Linking Working Relationships with Happiness

By Eve Purdy (@purdy_eve)

The Harvard Business Review article “To Be Happier at Work, Invest More in Your Relationships” recently floated to the top of my twitter feed. The post made me reflect on the intersection between wellness and team performance.

I spent the last year on the Gold Coast of Australia as an applied anthropologist working with the trauma team exploring how relationships facilitate care that is complex, interdependent, and time sensitive. We studied trauma through the lens of Relational Coordination (RC) Theory. RC suggests that teams that have shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect in the context of high-quality communication are able to coordinate complex work effectively. We studied then attempted to optimize work between trauma care providers through a variety of interventions that ranged from structural to process and all of which impacted relationships in some way. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the focus of our research felt like much more than improving work performance. There was an energy that was hard to pin down.

In the background of this work and my existence in the emergency department, I often found myself in awe of Shahina Braganza a wellness champions for the department. She facilitated a 4-minute pause every Thursday at handover for the group to reflect together. She energized the department with coordination of social events, diversity activities, and dance offs. She checked in on colleagues who might be suffering. She stocked the tea room. She did so much more. I found myself a bit skeptical at first, then very curious about her vested interest in staff wellness. The turning point from skepticism to curiosity came while I was taking an organizational behaviour course for my master’s. The link between employee satisfaction and work performance became impossible to ignore. Bottom line, happy emergency department staff are more likely to do their job well.

As an anthropologist I know that four-minute pauses and barbeques are certainly important value signals and rituals but both Shahina and I know that wellness for those working in our system is about an awful lot more than that. RC theory might be one important link. The Harvard Business Review article suggests that investing in relationships at work can make you happier and research from the RC group supports this conjecture. Studies link RC levels with employee satisfaction and those same studies link RC levels with patient outcomes in surgical clinics and long term care. Groups with high RC have higher affective commitment and less turnover intention – an effect seemingly mediated by job satisfaction in one nursing cohort. It makes sense. When employees understand their own and others role in the organization, when they feel they are contributing to a shared vision, and when they sense mutual respect they are happier in their work and more likely to stay.

All this made me reflect that while our group’s efforts to improve RC through organizational, process, and structural means with the main goal of improving patient outcomes may have also had the important – and perhaps even mediating factor – of improving job satisfaction for trauma providers. So maybe our next RC study, while remaining focused on improving patient care can also include a collaboration with the wellness team to better understand how strong working relationships make us happier…