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An overlooked secret of great companies

I had one of those increasingly rare, faith-in-humanity moments the other day, in an unlikely place: an auto repair shop.

There were two people behind the counter, and one of them was clearly having a stressful day. Though he was doing an admirable job appearing happy and being helpful to customers, as I sat in the waiting area I saw him sitting at the computer with his head in his hands, exasperated. When there were no more customers at the counter, his colleague asked him if he was going to take off for lunch. He told her he couldn't, holding up the backlog of paperwork he had to deal with. Her response, in the most sincere and empathic voice, was "what I can do to take the pressure off? I have time, let me help."

As a professional observer of business behavior and compassionate human being, that little comment made my day, and reminded me of an important ingredient in the business culture recipe: recognizing the difference between working for the same company and working together.

The two connections on which we business writers and speakers typically focus most are that between the business and its customers (I'll slightly repurpose "B2C" for that), and between the business and its employees ("B2E"). But there's a third dynamic that is at least as important -- though it doesn't get quite as much press -- and that's E2E.

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The relationship between and among employees is something of a chicken-and-egg proposition in that it plays a key role in both establishing the culture of a business and reflecting it. But it may be the best single indicator of the true spirit and soul of the company: where maintaining positive relationships with superiors, subordinates and customers may come with some degree of compulsion, there can be less inherent motivation to get along well with peers.

Enlightened companies realize this and facilitate quality E2E relationships in several ways:

Rewarding collaboration: Plenty of companies boast about having a collaborative culture, but not all of them put their money where their mouths are. Those that truly put a premium on healthy peer relationships find ways to nurture them in measurable ways: factoring group performance into compensation, promotion and other financial rewards, "360" reviews, and frequent, public praise of employees caught in the act of helping and supporting their colleagues.

Recognizing "assists": Just as in team sports, few wins come from the work of one person. "There's no 'I' in 'team'" is horribly cliché, but the message is right. When the business scores -- whether small daily accomplishments or big-picture victories -- it should be recognized as a collective accomplishment whenever possible. Giving or taking too much individual credit naturally makes people look out for number one more than for each other.

Assuring a non-threatening environment: Nothing is worse for morale than an oppressive workplace (even the perception of one). Employees who look over their shoulders and worry about repercussions, or whose behavior is guided by office politics, are rarely happy, and definitely not doing the best work they can do. They are likely defensive and self-preserving, and therefore unlikely to focus on the relationships that neither serve nor threaten them. People who feel safe, supported and comfortable are more likely to want to work together, and for the right reasons.

Flattening management layers: Online retailer Zappos announced last year that it was eliminating job titles and traditional management roles to reduce bureaucracy and increase employee engagement. This may be an extreme social and organizational experiment, and it remains to be seen whether it will work. But the idea is right. To the extent that is possible, employers should minimize reporting relationships and unnecessary hierarchies. Leadership, structure and some degree of supervision are necessary elements of any effective organization, but any hierarchy should be limited to what is needed to properly serve people (inside and outside the company) and get the real work done. Red tape discourages quality interpersonal relationships.

When building and evaluating your company culture, don't just look at your outside interactions or your hierarchical relationships -- also look closely across the horizontal lines of your business. Are people truly happy working with their peers and helping each other, and because they want to? If so, then chances are the other relationships are healthy, functional and effective.

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