‘Not getting along with people’ is consistently cited as a reason for work-related stress, and I would bet that at least 50% of every team, at one point in time, are working with at least one person that they find it difficult to be around. This could a line manager, a peer, a direct report, a key stakeholder or a customer – and this ’difficulty’ will be on a spectrum from mild irritation, to deep anxiety at the mere mention of a name.
Building relationship resilience is critical, especially in the work environment. So what do we mean by relationship resilience? It means recovering from difficulties, and adapting to adversity, in the context of relationships. And we must remember that even when we have relationship resilience, relationships can still feel difficult, but we will be more able to cope.
We cannot underestimate the importance and power of connection as the foundation to building relationship resilience. Matthew Lieberman (Professor and SCN Lab Director at UCLA Department of Psychology, Psychiatry and Bio-behavioural Sciences) believes that our need to connect is as basic as our need for food, water and shelter. We all recognise that without food water or shelter we will die, but how many of us believe that without social connection we will not thrive? There are many pieces of research around this, and Harry Harlow’s psychological experiments on monkeys in the 50- 70s is one example. New born baby monkeys were taken away from their mothers and some given surrogate mothers made of wire and wood, and some put in isolation in metal boxes for up to a year. Within days the monkeys in isolation were driven insane, rocking, clutching at themselves, tearing at and biting their own skin, and ripping out their hair. When removed from isolation they were too traumatised to interact with other monkeys and some were so shocked and depressed that they starved themselves to death. Some of the female monkeys were then impregnated, and when their babies were born they had no idea how to interact and would attack and often kill their off-spring. This is an extreme example of how a total lack of connection can lead to emotional breakdown.
If we move to humans, and remember the stories about the orphanages in Romania, one of the key findings was that children raised here, without ample emotional attention, led to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to their parent raised peers, even years after they had been adopted. And Bowlby’s famous research on attachment theory illustrates that we all come into the world pre-programmed to form attachments to others, as this will help us survive.
In a nutshell; we are hardwired to connect.
When we don’t connect with people it is uncomfortable, and as I alluded to earlier, this can be on a spectrum from mild irritation to deep anxiety. When we don’t connect it hurts. When we were a child, and another child didn’t want to play with us, it was wounding, and when we were little we didn’t mind showing how much it hurt by bursting into tears or throwing a tantrum – and it still feels like this out of the playground and in the workplace – except tears and tantrums aren’t as well received.
Research shows that the distress of social pain e.g. rejection and isolation is experienced in exactly the same way we experience physical pain. The area that lights up in the brain for social rejection – the anterior cingulate – is the exact same area that lights up for the distress of physical pain.
If someone fell over and broke their leg it is unlikely that we would say to them: ‘it’s not a big deal’, ‘stop making a fuss’, ‘get over it’, ‘you must remain professional’, yet we regularly say these sorts of things to people that are struggling with a connection at work.
Anyone that has experienced chronic physical pain will know that it is exhausting. Based on research, the same will be true for chronic social pain. If you are working alongside people that you don’t connect with, and considering how long we spend at work, there will be a lot of exhausted people right now. This is why ‘not getting along with people’ in the workplace is consistently cited as a reason for work-related stress.
Unless organisations recognise the importance of connection in the workplace, and support their people to build relationship resilience, absenteeism, and presenteeism will continue to grow and continue to impact bottom lines.