Relatedness: When psychological safety brings people together

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In the 1970s, American psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed the Self-Determination Theory, which argues that human beings must satisfy three basic needs to achieve maximum engagement and performance: competence, autonomy and relatedness. This article focuses on the third. Do you feel safe at work? Many organizations claim to leave room for error, but is this really the case? Or are employees’ mistakes held against them?

The keys to satisfying the need for relatedness

Several elements are required to fulfill the need for relatedness. Human Resources at Google conducted a rigorous two-year study that highlighted the characteristics of effective teams. The authors identified five key dynamics, all of which help meet the need for relatedness:

  1. Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear?
  4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
  5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

Psychological safety is the most important dynamic by far; it’s the underpinning of the other four.

How to foster relatedness

According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, recommends the following:

  • Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary. Ask, “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”
  • Speak human to human. Recognize that everyone has beliefs and hopes, wants to feel respected and competent, and wishes for happiness, just like you.
  • Replace blame with curiosity. 
    • State the facts.
    • Go over the factors that caused problematic outcome together, without judgment. Ask, “What obstacles led to this result?”
    • Try to find solutions by asking, “What do you think needs to happen here?” Or, “What would be your ideal scenario?” And, “How could I support you?”

In his book When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing, bestselling author Daniel Pink, also shares several tips. For example:

  • Quickly respond to your colleagues’ emails. This will support their experience of relatedness and, indirectly, signal recognition of their individual contributions.
  • Tackle organizational challenges together. Get different departments involved to cultivate joint responsibility and reliability in the teams.

For more relevant suggestions, read “Comment rendre votre équipe fière et unie?“ in Les Affaires.

What are the indicators for success?

You can use a number of indicators to check if the need for relatedness is met in your organization. For example, you can ask your colleagues the above questions related to the five key dynamics that Google identified during its study. If they answer “yes,” the need is probably satisfied. 

Also, if your colleagues socialize outside the office, that’s a good sign. 

Lastly, when employees speak in “we” terms instead of using the third person, it indicates that they feel a sense of belonging in their organization. 

Take action!

What are you seeing in your organization right now? What’s the first step you want to take, individually and collectively, to fulfill your need for relatedness and that of your colleagues? You now have several concrete examples. Choose what’s best for your workplace.

About the author

Danielle Michaud, PCC, MBA, CPA, CGA is an ICF Accredited Coach, trainer and facilitator. She has more than 20 years of management experience in various environments and contexts. She holds the Agile Coach and NOVA Profile certifications (profile on leadership style and motivations), and is passionate about new organizational forms, such as the liberated company.

Further reading:

  • Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2011.