Research

The Building Blocks of Long-Lasting Professional Relationships

By Catherine Probst

Kevin Rockmann

Kevin Rockmann

No one knows better than George Mason University researcher Kevin Rockmann just how complex relationships—personal and professional—can be. With so many dynamics at play, the question of how relationships are built, develop, evolve, and dissolve over time becomes an important issue.

With a background in organizational behavior, Rockmann, associate professor in George Mason’s School of Management, has devoted his research to answering this multifaceted question. Specifically, his research revolves around the psychological attachments that individuals maintain with organizations, teams, and each other.

He is particularly interested in how these attachments play out in the workplace and how they can influence one’s overall impression of an organization.

“Attachments can be based on a variety of things—reciprocity with a manager, a sense of identification with the organization’s mission, or even meaningful work in a team—and understanding these attachments is critical to the success of an organization,” says Rockmann. “These attachments give us a lens through which we can see how individuals make decisions with regard to their organizations and their jobs, which can ultimately affect organizational success.”

One of Rockmann’s most recent studies examines this idea of attachment among employees at a Fortune 500 high-tech company. This study focuses on the unintentional effects of disconnectedness that result when individuals work every day in an office while their colleagues are offsite. The study shows that the individuals at the office end up having lower job satisfaction, a weaker sense of identification with the organization, and fewer strong network friendship ties.

Rockmann and his colleague, Michael Pratt from the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, note that while there has been extensive research on understanding the experiences of employees working offsite, researchers have largely neglected those left behind in the office. They found that working alone onsite does to some degree isolate individuals.

The main reason for this, Rockmann says, is that individuals are not able to form bonds or strong personal network ties with members of their team.

“Working offsite has become a very popular choice for many employees for various reasons. Therefore, organizations have implemented programs to provide flexibility to these individuals,” says Rockmann. “But for those who are left working onsite, there is a significant threat of dissatisfaction and weakened attachment toward the organization and toward colleagues, largely because of weakened network ties.”

Surprisingly, Rockmann found that individuals are not finding themselves with weaker relationships for want of face-to-face communication. “Instead, the communication they do get is not with their teammates with whom they share similar experiences but with other employees who just happen to be there.”

Rockmann suggests that managers focus their attention on the entire population of distributed organizational members, including those whom managers might assume are unaffected by offsite arrangements because those employees are doing their jobs the way they have always done them—at the office.

Diving even further into the development of psychological attachments, Rockmann is also interested in how relationships can be affected by “anchoring” memories. Specifically, he wants to determine how one’s memory of how they joined an organization can influence how they feel about the organization in the long run.

In a study of more than 500 business experts consulting for one company, Rockmann and Gary Ballinger at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia found that when individuals remember being specifically referred to an organization from a colleague, they experience a greater sense of gratitude and hope, and end up being more loyal to the organization. As a result, any financial gains they receive along the way are seen as positive and any negative experiences are overlooked.

Mason professor Kevin Rockmann teaches organizational behavior and negotiation for the School of Management's Master of Business Administration Program. Photo by Creative Services.

Mason professor Kevin Rockmann teaches organizational behavior and negotiation for the School of Management’s Master of Business Administration Program. Photo by Creative Services.

This was not the case for those who did not have a memory of those positive emotions when they joined the organization.

“The outcome of this research is very important because it shows organizations, in order to build loyalty among employees, need to give them a sense of what it means to be a part of the company,” says Rockmann. “If employees are able to establish a positive attachment to a company, they are more likely to work for the good of the company.”

Ultimately, Rockmann’s research indicates that memories of earlier experiences play an important role in how current and future experiences are perceived. Rockmann explains that even if one employee has a positive experience with his or her manager, it may not be enough to change his or her view of the entire company. Rather, a more significant experience that occurred early on in one’s tenure at the organization might influence all future experiences.

Rockmann was surprised to discover the strength of the negative relationship between money earned and “citizenship behaviors”—actions that employees demonstrate to help the organization—for those who had no memory of joining their companies. For these employees, positive experiences with their managers made them less likely to have a positive perception of the organization.

Rockmann and his colleague theorize that individuals without a meaningful event in their past see the relationship with the organization as purely economic. Thus more and more successful economic transactions, in this case consultations, serve to further solidify the relationship as economic, which leads the individual to act in self-interested and selfish ways rather than seeking to help the organization.

So what does Rockmann suggest?

“Organizations need to focus on creating positive memories of joining the company and involving employees in activities that will make them feel like they belong,” he says. “For those who are already employed, they need to know that their voice matters and that they have input in important decisions that may affect the company.”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Mason Research 2013.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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