The Three Key Relationships Found in Great Workplaces

By Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin

People have a choice every day in how they mentally approach their work.

Though most of us ultimately work for some blend of financial goals and personal fulfillment, we each choose how we think about our work. People can consider work a necessity or a blessing, a burden or an opportunity.

While the choice is not as simplistic as that, putting it in stark terms does help you think more critically about how the decisions you make as a leader influence how your employees see their work.

We began asking people about how their workplace shaped their approach to work in 1980, when Levering and Moskowitz asked thousands of employees, “Is your organization a great place to work?” and “Why?” While the context in which people respond has changed quite a bit since then, their answers point to strikingly consistent experiences.

Key elements to a great workplace

Specifically, they believe their leaders to be credible, respectful, and fair — they trust them. They also take pride in what they do, and they share a sense of camaraderie with their coworkers. Without trust, pride, and camaraderie, any measure of business success is diminished.

Therein lies an important insight. Because the relationships you create matter, you are the critical difference between a very good company and a very great company.

In the best companies, leaders at all levels have a strong commitment to creating strong ties between the employee and the organization. Indeed, enhancing trust, pride, and camaraderie in the workplace is the central task of effective leadership in today’s organization.


It is often said that employees tend to join organizations, but leave their managers. While not a universal truth, it is often the case that employees look for new opportunities when they determine they have irreconcilable relationships with their supervisors.

On the other hand, when an employee says and genuinely means, “I trust the people I work for,” leaders, the employee, and the organization all benefit. Not only is the risk of turnover lessened, but the workflow is easier and more gratifying.

If you step back from your workplace and consider for a moment the people in your life whom you really trust and who trust you, you know that agreeing upon goals, communicating needs and issues, and relying upon them to follow through is easier and quicker.

People in trusting relationships sometimes develop a shorthand way of communicating that helps to speed up information flow. Further, when a difficult issue comes up, the individuals in the relationship seek to preserve the relationship and give one another the benefit of the doubt. A similar pattern appears in trusting business relationships — we are not always second-guessing motives, and we can rely on other people to follow through on their commitments.

Trust also supports enhanced cooperation. When we trust one another in our teams, we are more likely to encourage mutual growth, seek the win-win, and resolve conflicts more constructively. We are more willing to give extra to get the job done.

In all of these ways, the trust that a manager helps to foster with his or her team matters. Trust is the primary relationship.

The 3 qualities necessary for Trust

This is evidenced by the nuanced way that employees we surveyed talked about trusting their leaders. Employees described three qualities that are necessary to their experience of trust, and these three qualities are the first three dimensions of the Great Place to Work Model.

The first, Credibility, involves the sense that leaders give employees appropriate information, are competent to lead the organization, and that their actions match their words.

The second, Respect, refers to the employees’ beliefs that leaders support them personally and professionally, that they wish to collaborate with them on suggestions and decisions, and that leaders care about them as people and not just as employees.

The final group of perceptions, Fairness, involves the belief that leaders create a level playing field, treating people equitably and impartially, and allowing them to voice concerns about decisions.

An example that speaks to all three qualities can be found in a story about Plante & Moran, a Michigan-based accounting firm and a list-maker since 1999. They proclaim that the company is “relatively jerk-free” right in the philosophy statement.

The story behind the claim is that founding partner Frank Moran once told a fellow staff member that Plante & Moran doesn’t hire jerks, hence leaving the organization jerk-free. But the staff member replied that we are all jerks at times. Frank conceded this point and settled for the statement that the company is “relatively jerk-free.”

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In this simple statement, Plante & Moran communicates its goal to hire the best people (Credibility), its nurturing and understanding work environment (Respect), and its commitment to holding everyone to a similar standard (Fairness). All leaders set expectations for people, but Plante & Moran builds credibility, respect, and fairness in their approach. Each of these anchors of trust will be discussed later in the book.


The second of the three relationships found in great workplaces (and the fourth dimension of the Great Place to Work Model) is the relationship between the individual and his or her work.

Essentially, people experience a great workplace when they feel as though they make a difference in their organization, that their work is meaningful. They are also proud of their team’s accomplishments, and the contributions the organization makes to the community at large.

Often, pride comes from the employee’s sense that he or she contributes to the organization’s values, the goods and services it produces, and the philanthropic contributions the organization makes to better their communities. While largely internalized, a healthy sense of pride can be bolstered by actions on the part of the organization.

Many of these actions will be discussed in the chapter on Pride, but for now, consider Recreation Equipment Inc. (REI). While best known as a nationwide retailer of quality outdoor gear and apparel, REI’s employees know they are contributing to a higher goal.

REI is committed to getting people active outdoors, increasing access to outdoor recreation, and reducing its own impact on the environment. Pictures of employees participating in outdoor activities are posted on the walls of every store, and employees are routinely involved in community outreach projects.

While REI might attract individuals who already have an affinity for the outdoors, the opportunities REI offers employees capitalizes upon and multiplies this sense of pride.


Great workplaces foster healthy and strong relationships between people, and given this, the final dimension of the Great Place to Work Model is Camaraderie.

At great workplaces, people feel welcomed from the very first day, through everything from formal orientation activities to meaningful interactions with coworkers and mentors. They feel as though everyone is working toward one common goal, and that they can be authentic at work.

While some degree of camaraderie can be attributed to good hiring, organizations also take action to build a sense of family at work. They provide opportunities for employees to collaborate and interact outside of work. Some also provide outlets for employees to help one another in times of need. Still others celebrate the unique gifts of their employees that may not otherwise be discovered in the course of a normal workday.

Starbucks, a global purveyor of tea and coffee, is a company that encourages camaraderie. In each of its 15,000 stores, partners (Starbucks’ term for “employees”) get to know each other better by sharing free beverages a half-hour before and after their shift. This allows partners to interact with one another off-the-clock, but enjoying a cup of coffee or tea on the company.

These five dimensions — and three relationships they fall under — will provide a vocabulary with which you might better understand great workplaces, a lens through which you can consider the health of the relationships in your organization, and a framework for you to make systematic changes to your workplace.

Excerpted from The Great Workplace: How to Build It, How to Keep It, And Why It Mattersby Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin. Copyright © 2011 by The Great Places to Work Institute, Inc. Published by Josey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA. 94103. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Michael Burchell is a corporate vice president with the Great Places to Work Institute and a partner in the Institute's UAE affiliate. Prior to joining the Institute he focused on workplace development issues at W.L. Gore & Associates. Jennifer Robin is a Research Fellow at the Great Place to Work Institute. She currently teaches at Bradley University.