Humans are hardwired to connect. They are social creatures that crave friendship and positive interactions with others. As much as we yearn for these interactions, however, many of us struggle to be good at building relationships. But why? To gain more clarity, my colleague Joe Folkman and I looked at our data to discover the key elements to developing positive relationships both within and outside of work.

There are three items we use to measure relationships:

  1. Balancing results with a concern for others’ needs,
  2. Being trusted by other members of the work group
  3. Staying in touch with issues and concerns of individuals in the group.
Our data showed that leaders who excelled in these areas were able to develop more positive relationships and, in turn, significantly improve employee engagement, retention, and discretionary effort.

However, there is a much deeper meaning and importance beyond those key success indicators. Relationships fill important human needs for belonging and for providing a sense of purpose. They add overall meaning to work.

As employees at every level can attest, when work has a purpose, their lives have greater purpose as well. The research is clear that physical and mental health improves when people are part of a well-functioning group.

This topic has gained greater importance in the past few decades as the nature of organizations has been transformed. The nature of the relationships that made a traditional hierarchy function well is dramatically different from the culture that allows a flat network and team-based organization to operate well.

Relationships In Traditional Organizations

In the steep pyramids of times past, there was a premium on relationships that were defined by the hierarchy. These relationships succeeded when people knew and functioned contentedly within their appropriate roles. People at lower levels learned to be responsive and take direction, while those in managerial roles learned the importance of providing clear direction to direct reports.

In a steep hierarchy, relationships tended to be more distant and formal. This led to leaders being encouraged to maintain a distance between themselves and direct reports.

But Flatter Organizations Require Different Relationships

In the organizations of today, with their greater emphasis on teams and networks, along with better information dissemination, the nature of relationships has changed. It is now important to develop relationships that elicit cooperation. Instead of people taking direction, they are encouraged to take initiative and act more independently.

What Behaviors Improve Positive Relationships?

At Zenger Folkman, we frequently do studies to determine which companion behaviors can help build a strength in a specific area. In the category of building relationships, we found nine companion behaviors that we clustered into three critical themes:

1. The leader’s mindset and attitude. Leaders who excelled in positive interactions were masters at projecting optimism. It is often easy to see what is going wrong, but for the sake of relationships, you should learn to stop yourself before generally professing a negative view. Maintain a positive and productive attitude. Put equal focus (or more) on what’s going right. These leaders also conveyed a “how can I personally improve” attitude to others. When you learn to genuinely and sincerely ask for feedback on what you can do to improve, it dramatically improves your relationships.

2. One-on-one interactions. Relationship people are good listeners. They don’t pretend that they are listening while actually thinking about what else they need to accomplish that day. They focus on listening to the other person and ask good questions that help them understand the other’s point of view. They understand that good communication is the key to healthy and happy relationships. They keep others well informed and let them know what, when, where, and how the critical steps occur. They look for opportunities to praise, recognize and reward others. They are completely honest and act with high integrity. They care about the success of others and strive to assist others on their teams by identifying skills or areas of knowledge that will provide genuine help.

3. Creating teams and networks. Leaders who value relationships don’t try to work alone. They look proactively for ways to increase collaboration and teamwork. They are able to resolve conflicts, and they seek better ways to cooperate. They practice inclusiveness and show that they value diversity by appreciating the differences between themselves and others.

It is clear that learning to improve relationships will not only increase the engagement and commitment of those you work with, but will also improve your quality of life. As Albert Einstein said, “I fear the day technology will surpass our human interaction.” People truly need other people. Improving your relationships with others creates the best possible way to work and to live.

—Jack Zenger
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(This article first appeared on Forbes)