Relational coordination theory had its genesis in the airline industry. Quality leaders are reemphasizing the key concepts for organizations that are in the midst of significant change. It is during these times of great stress when people in workgroups suffer the most ill effects of a culture that is not sufficiently oriented toward relationships in the most fundamental ways. When people begin questioning the commitment of others on the team, wondering if the group shares the same goals, and there is a lack of understanding of the roles of others both upstream and downstream, the culture is not incorporating relational coordination theory. Communication (or lack thereof) is fundamentally at the center of the cultural gaps, and although communication gets lots of air time and lip service as being critical, leaders and change agents may lack the knowledge or skills to create a communication-driven environment. Seven principles of relational coordination (Gittell, 2016, p. 13) represent a successful relational environment:
- Frequent communication.
- Timely communication.
- Accurate communication.
- Problem-solving communication.
- Shared goals.
- Shared knowledge.
- Mutual respect.
The organization requires reframing to create a network of relationships between cross-functional work teams. Three relational dimensions are critical to first steps: shared knowledge, shared goals, and mutual respect (Gittell, 2016, p. 13). Team members engage in deeper understanding of one another's roles. How do these roles interact and interconnect? Where are the potentials for disconnection? Where are there connections that might form the basis for shared goals? What are the unique contributions of each role? These conversations and explorations create shared knowledge and reveal the opportunities for identifying shared goals. The development of shared goals is a process of identifying the overarching themes, commitments, and visions that transcend individual roles and contributions. The process of moving from shared knowledge to shared goals may take substantial development and dialogue. This investment by the work team in each other is fundamental to the creating a relational coordination environment. Discussion, debate, and dialogue is the process that enables the development of mutual respect. Conversations characterized by authentic curiosity and interest advance the process more quickly, but the level of authentic engagement cannot be imposed and will vary from work team to work team dependent on prior and existing relationships, team motivation, environmental and organizational support, and factors such as magnitude and speed of the demands of change. The three dimensions are reinforced when supported by communication that is frequent, timely, and accurate. A casual communication system is insufficient; a thoughtful and intentional communication system is required. This system will also be essential when problems arise. Then, the focus will be on problem solving rather than blaming. Gittell (2016) measured the seven dimensions using a network survey known as the Relational Coordination Survey and demonstrated that several dimensions are highly correlated and the use of relational coordination and its full dimensions is highly predictive of a quality and efficiency outcomes (Gittell, 2016).
How Does It Work?
Complex work environments dealing with high-stakes situations can become fragmented when coworkers lack understanding of the contributions of all members of the team and the value of the contributions to the entire enterprise. The interconnections between roles and contributions rarely receive sufficient attention, but relational coordination is the perfect intervention to reduce blaming and reinforce trust. Coordination has a highly relational aspect and effect. Through careful examination of overlaps and interconnections, opportunities for more precise and higher level functional goals become more visible and can be optimized. Relational coordination is a strong predictor of both quality and efficiency of operations. Beyond the relations development work, the organization must provide systems for support, including work process intervention to support fundamental changes to work processes. These include experts and processes such as Six Sigma, Plan-Do-Study-Act, or A3 problem-solving models (Quality One International, 2015) for analysis of processes.
Additional structural interventions are also necessary to fill out the environmental supports (Gittell, 2016). Seven principles must be embedded into structures and require heavy engagement with Human Resources and Information Technology departmental supports, including:
- Hiring and training for teamwork.
- Relational job designs with responsibility for coordination.
- Boundary spanners whose specific jobs are to coordinate across roles.
- Shared accountability and reward across roles.
- Shared meetings that include all relevant roles.
- Shared protocols and routines to connect relevant roles.
- Shared information systems to connect all relevant roles.
What is a Professional Development Leader to Do?
Relational coordination has been shown to increase job satisfaction, and workers in these environments are more creative and innovative when they are connected to each other. There is an environment of psychological safety that makes learning from failures less risky and collaboration more highly valued. By disrupting the power and status dynamics and professional identity barriers that separate workers of different types, in different roles and from different real or perceived hierarchies, the environment and work experience becomes more fluid and more personally connected and reduces the threat-rigidity response found in organizations (Gittell, 2016).
Combining the power of process improvement tools with relational coordination principles is an important way for professional development professionals to think about how to empower teams to reach higher and higher levels of improvement in problem solving but also in the so-called soft-skill dimensions. Toolkits developed for relational coordination coaches can be used to guide the discussions and uncover through workshopping the current state of the seven dimensions in the organization (Gittell, 2016). This first step, defining the current state, lays the groundwork for visioning and working as solver groups to create the new future vision.
The theory of relational coordination and associated work is supported by a learning collaborative with abundant resources and networks for those who wish to learn more and take the implementation of relational coordination forward in their organizations. The Relational Theory Research Collaborative is an international learning community dedicated to the transformation of work organizations for optimization. Although reading books and articles and reviewing talks and presentations are important to understanding the basics of the theory, participating in a learning collaborative can provide a supportive environment for leaders who want to introduce significant change in an organized and structured way. To learn more about relational coordination and the network, visit the website of Brandeis University Heller School of Social Policy, Relational Coordination Research Collaborative at https://heller.brandeis.edu/relational-coordination/index.html.
- Gittell, J. (2016). Transforming relationships for high performance: The power of relational coordination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Quality One International. (2015). A3 problem solving. Retrieved from https://quality-one.com/a3/