Measure the relationships between individuals, even over measuring the individuals.

Transition zone between two worlds land and ocean.
Image source: https://unsplash.com/@wolfgang_hasselmann

That humans are social animals is well established; that this social aspect of our species is not reflected in the way we design the feedback mechanisms and hierarchies of our work organizations seems evident. It’s time to rethink performance reviews and employee evaluations that focus on the individuals instead of their relationships.

Paraphrasing Dave Snowden, in a complex-adaptive system, the relationships between the parts matter more than the parts themselves. Humans in almost any context, but especially in the workplace, represent a system where the relationships between them matter more than the individuals themselves. Coupling that idea with Dr. Ron Westrum‘s topology of organizations, and how generative environments exhibit the sharing of both responsibility and risk, the value of relationships – both formal and informal – becomes clear.

How can we sense into the key relationships in our workplace?

The pandemic has limited our connection channels to mainly virtual ones. This could allow us to do a quantitative and qualitative survey of interactions across the modes of communication – Instant Messaging, Email, Video Conference and Chat, document collaboration and commenting. Both quantity of interactions across channels and the quality of those communications could be surveyed and measured. The data could be analyzed within the structure of the team – along reporting or dotted lines, and within liminal space between projects and individuals. We could consider which connections are sent publicly and which are private.

From this data, we would begin to see the edges and effects of the formal and informal networks that exist in our culture. We would gain insights to how some channels manifest and evolve over time. We would know when a network was breaking, and whether losing a specific employee would break chains in multiple networks.

When I think about how to work with individuals, ask them not how they are doing or how they think they are doing. Rather, ask them about their 3, 5, or 7 most important relationships. What are the qualities of those connections? How have their interactions been? How are they tracking those dyadic and triadic constellations over time?

Bringing the work outside the individual and into the space between them opens opportunities to help the entire organization, without that benefit being at the expense of the person or, more crucially, vice-versa. Working on our relationships is the new working on ourselves.