Fri, 04/13/2012 - 08:40
Anyone who still dismisses communication and relationship issues as “touchy-feely” is out of touch with current scientific evidence. They’re probably getting suboptimal team performance, too. The research behind it all can start in unexpected places. Consider the Relational Coordination Survey, a highly effective tool that is moving from years of careful research to wide use in workplaces.
Brandeis University researcher Jody Hoffer Gittell has been making sense of how people work together effectively for most of her life. She grew up on a farm where there was constant work with many interdependent tasks. Even at that young age she found it striking that everyone knew what needed to be done and how to coordinate their work with everyone else’s.
Shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect
Years later, studying airline departures as a doctoral student at MIT, Jody observed this same quality of interdependent interaction. She named it Relational Coordination and defined it as “communicating and relating for the purpose of task integration.”
More than defining RC, Jody identified specific qualities of communication and relationship that made this possible and designed the elegantly simple Relational Coordination Survey to measure them. She found that on high performing teams members share the same goals, know about each other’s work and respect each other’s work.
Her doctoral research looked at performance in the airline industry, and demonstrated a strong, linear association between relational coordination and flight departure performance. Her PhD thesis became the business bestseller “The Southwest Airlines Way.” This was the book that brought to public attention the teamwork culture at Southwest.
RC for better patient outcomes
While this line of research was unfolding, Jody had a baby. Watching the labor and delivery staff, she got the idea to study relational coordination in healthcare. As described in her book “High Performance Healthcare,” it turns out that RC is strongly associated with improved quality, efficiency, patient and staff satisfaction and clinical outcomes.
For example, in a study of patients undergoing joint replacement surgery at nine orthopedic hospitals, higher RC scores for the care team linked to less pain and greater mobility for their patients six weeks after surgery.
Talking about interdependence
Over the past 2 years, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of working with Jody to develop new applications for the RC Survey, using it as a tool for helping teams and organizations measure and improve the quality of their interactions. It’s not designed to be used as a report card, performance evaluation tool or a basis for calculating financial incentives. Instead, the RC Survey is most effective when used to help people learn to notice and discuss how they are working together.
The RC Survey gives teammates a powerful framework for talking about their interdependence. It allows them to ask, “How does the way I do my work affect your ability to do yours?” and talk about the answers.
The survey also helps teams discover where they need to raise their game:
- Do they all share the same goals?
- Do they need to learn more about each other’s work?
- Do they need to improve their communication skills or build trust and respect?
Our early experience using the RC Survey in combination with other interventions has been very positive, with teams showing substantial improvement in just a matter of months. Our next steps will be to foster more research on organizational change using relational coordination and to launch a course to help leaders and internal and external consultants incorporate concepts and tools from relational coordination into their organizational interventions.
If you’d like to learn more about Relational Coordination, visit the website of the Relational Coordination Research Collaborative or contact me via the phone number or contact page below.
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Anthony L. Suchman, MD, MA, FACP is Senior Consultant, Healthcare Consultancy at the McArdle Ramerman Center. He is a practicing physician, health services researcher, and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Rochester.
Tony’s work focuses on partnership process across all levels of healthcare. He works with clinicians, administrators, patient advocates and board members in health care organizations worldwide to advance the practice of Relationship-Centered Care. He can be reached via our contact page or by calling him at (585) 325-1210 x 302.
For more information about Tony, please click here.