Relationships with coworkers are at the core of most workplace experiences, with research indicating that the quality of these relationships exercises strong sway into quality of experience and organizational attachment. Research in the stress and coping sphere highlights how supportive relationships at work can buffer against an array of workplace stressors and their negative outcomes. However, research has yet to discover when and how social support at work enhances relational attachment and when it hinders relational attachment. Across three field studies, the authors (Ehrhardt & Ragins, 2019) develop and test a framework that considers the fit between individual need for social support and workplace-provided social support to explain the development of relational attachment at work.
WHAT IS RELATIONAL NEEDS FIT?
Past research has shown that employees tend to be more committed to their organizations when they feel more psychologically attached to their coworkers. And while this framework recognizes that individuals have a need for social support in the workplace, it fails to recognize that people have different levels of that need. Further, if individuals have differences in their need for social support, then the concept of person-environment fit (PE fit) would suggest that employees will feel the most satisfied with their social support at work—or the most relationally attached—when the workplace environment meets their unique need for social support.
In the first two studies, the researchers were able to successfully test and replicate this core theory. They found that relational needs fit predicted relational attachment, which in turn predicted positive outcomes such as lower turnover and absenteeism, increased work engagement, and other positive outcomes associated with positive workplace relationships. Their studies were also able to rule out general social support as predictors of organizational commitment, demonstrating the importance of alignment between employee needs and the social support provided by relationships at work.
VIOLATION OF RELATIONAL NEEDS
The dynamic nature of the researchers’ theory suggests that it is not just a lack of social support relative to one’s needs that can hinder relational attachment, but also too much social support can have negative consequences. Dubbed the “too close for comfort effect,” the authors said that perceived intrusiveness can occur when individuals receive social support that exceeds their personal norms of privacy and relationship boundaries. When individuals feel intruded upon, they tend to socially distance themselves as much as possible—effectively crippling any relational attachment that was developing. Thus, in their third study, the researchers determined that individuals have a threshold for too much social support. Instead, an appropriate level of social support is required for maximal relational attachment to develop in the workplace.
Since the statistical relationship between relational attachment and organizational commitment is clear in the literature, it is easy to make the case that employers should take interest in how to support relational attachment among its employees. The biggest takeaway from this set of studies is that a “one size fits all approach” should be avoided, as employees have individual needs with respect to social support. Rather, measures should be taken to tailor social support to individuals’ needs.
Managers, in particular, should be mindful of how they can successfully address their employees’ needs and recognize that their good intentions can have negative consequences if they are perceived to violate their employees’ sense of privacy. The researchers recommend that a foundation of good communication skills, emotional intelligence, and understanding of nonverbal signals can provide help with successful navigation of employees’ support needs. In turn, organizations have a responsibility to ensure that managers have the support they need to develop and practice such skills, such as through organization-sponsored workshops and training sessions.
Ehrhardt, K., & Ragins, B.R. Relational attachment at work: A complementary fit perspective on the role of relationships in organizational life. Academy of Management Journal, 62(1), 248-282. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2016.0245