Relational Coordination Offers Seven Principles to Connect Across Roles at Work

09/12/2016 02:25 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2016

by Jody Hoffer Gittell

Team-building teaches valuable skills that are needed in today's working world. But it doesn't go far enough. It's often too superficial to create the scalable and sustainable change that organizations need to respond to the performance challenges they face.

Relational coordination goes deeper. Based on seven basic principles, relational coordination helps organizations, their employees and their partners engage across all the relevant roles to achieve desired outcomes while reducing wasted efforts.

Relational coordination has seven simple yet powerful principles to connect the various players:

  • Frequent communication
  • Timely communication
  • Accurate communication
  • Problem-solving communication
  • Shared goals
  • Shared knowledge
  • Mutual respect

These principles can be applied to any work process that needs coordination, whether in a face-to-face team, across departments or throughout the entire organization—even across organizations in your supply network and even with your customers.

How to get these seven principles working? Three kinds of interventions are needed:

Relational interventions start the change process. The most important is "creating a safe space," not for avoiding disagreement but rather to enable people to disagree respectfully, admit what they don’t know and learn new things without losing face. Leaders create a safe space by demonstrating respectful interaction with all, by admitting freely what they don’t know and by turning to others for the expertise they can offer, regardless of their organizational position. This can be followed by “mapping the current state” through relational mapping, which is a way to identify those roles that are involved in achieving desired outcomes, to understand their interdependence and to assess the current strength of relational coordination from each perspective.

Work process interventions are needed to change the work itself, using methods like Lean Six Sigma or Plan-Do-Study-Act to engage in experimentation that is supported by the seven principles of relational coordination.

Structural interventions are needed to embed the seven principles into everyone's job and redesign existing HR and operational structures. For example:

  • Hiring and training for teamwork
  • Relational job designs with responsibility for coordination
  • Boundary spanners whose specific job is to coordinate across all relevant roles
  • Shared accountability and rewards across all relevant roles
  • Shared conflict resolution methods across all relevant roles
  • Shared meetings that include all relevant roles
  • Shared protocols and routines to connect all relevant roles
  • Shared information systems to connect all relevant roles

While structures are essential to “hardwire” relational coordination into your organization, we know very well that alone they are not sufficient. Many failed change efforts start by introducing new structures, whether IT or meetings or shared rewards, without doing the relational and work process interventions to get the culture change started. Taken together, these relational, work process and structural interventions support the seven principles of relational coordination through a Relational Model of Organizational Change.

How do we know it works? Unlike many team-building methods that are used to help organizations, relational coordination is a scientifically validated theory, supported by dozens of studies across 15 industries and 20 countries. Relational coordination has been shown to positively support:

  • Quality and safety performance
  • Efficiency and financial performance
  • Worker well-being
  • Client engagement
  • Learning and innovation

Change is a huge challenge for most organizations. Together the seven principles of relational coordination and the Relational Model of Organizational Change provide a powerful set of tools to support positive organizational change.

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