March 24, 2023

If you scrolled a news feed over the last month, you undoubtedly saw “quiet quitting” everywhere. The social media-fueled phenomenon of workers doing the bare minimum to keep a paycheck, while mentally checking out of an otherwise unsatisfying job, has become the follow-on to the Great Resignation.
I won’t add yet another think-piece to the pile. But I will offer this. Quiet quitting is just one more symptom of employers failing to meet employees where they’re at and giving them what they need to be happy and productive. Combined with the obvious factors of pay and benefits—as important as ever—there’s a layer of culture to hiring and retaining talent right now that many manufacturers haven’t fully grasped.
A big part of that cultural equation comes down to relationships. With workers no longer content to stick it out—or remain productive—when they’re unhappy, businesses that cultivate human, colleague-to-colleague relationships have a secret weapon towards a happier and more fruitful team. “When they don’t feel cared about,” Adam Grant, the author on organizational psychology, wrote recently, “people will eventually stop caring.”
Yet building genuine relationships within the setting of a manufacturing organization can be trickier than we’d like to believe. That’s especially true considering the turnover many shops experience with newer employees.
Yes, it’s tough, but incredibly important because relationships are the antidote to turnover and dissatisfaction. And we can all get better at building them at work. Here are a few simple ways to boost engagement with your colleagues and help create a culture of caring in your company.
1. Cultivate caring and trust—even with the gruffest of co-workers.
Historically speaking, manufacturers are not the most touchy-feely bunch. The industry employs plenty of gearheads more inclined to use jokes to avoid discomfort than share anything sincere. Yet even employees who don’t show up with their heart on their sleeve want to feel cared about.
How should you go about breaking down barriers and building connections? Not unlike in our personal lives, relationship building at work starts with opening yourself up to vulnerability. Start with simply asking a co-worker what they did over the weekend. Ask them about the sick parent you know they’re caring for, or how their child is doing in school. Even better, offer to cover a shift or help on a project if they need some time off. Ask them how things are going with a difficult issue. When they talk, listen intently, ask genuine questions, and share your own struggles if they’re relevant.
These conversations show we value our co-workers for who they are, not just their spot on the production line. They build trust, connection, and confidence. And that’s exactly what’s needed to weather the hard times that are inevitable in the manufacturing industry. Because let’s face it, things will go wrong. Conflict arises. People feel disappointed or betrayed. Projects go sideways. In my experience, if there’s no foundation of caring or trust, people are much more likely to bail when things get bumpy. If we care about people, we tend to work harder to solve problems, feel safer to be honest and direct, and are quicker to give the benefit of the doubt.
Manufacturing leaders can and should model the behaviors they’d like to see penetrate their organizations. But ultimately, it’s up to all employees to find the right approach to integrating the gruff manufacturing culture of yesteryear with the openness and connectedness that can breathe life into our companies today.
2. Invest in the right relationships.
In a memorable scene from The Office one colleague says to the other, “Sorry I annoyed you with my friendship.” Like any great sitcom, the show is a masterclass in striking to the heart of things. Many of us—even those you’d never consider gruff or friendship-averse outside the workplace—do shy away from making friends at work because we worry things will go horribly wrong. Yes, every relationship has risks and takes work. But the rewards far outweigh the downside. One study even found that employees who have friends at work have higher productivity, retention, and job satisfaction. And no surprise: workers who build these social connections also tend to stick around longer.
Whether starting a new position or just looking to strengthen connections at an existing employer, you’ll want to be deliberate about how you proceed, starting with some self-assessment. Think about the kinds of relationships that nourish you, motivate you, make you feel seen, and push you to be your best. Once you’ve established what those relationships look like, pursue them intentionally. Ask a couple of co-workers to grab coffee, go after projects or roles that align your work with certain people, or find reasons to seek out the help of others.
Rob Cross, a leadership professor at Babson College, calls this putting your “anchor” in nourishing relationships. “Do you thrive when interacting with people who are upbeat, analytical, calm, or ambitious?,” Cross writes in the Harvard Business Review. There’s no rule against enjoying what you’re doing, but the point of the exercise, Cross points out, is not necessarily to identify your new BFF. “It’s about understanding which relationships and interactions are fulfilling, motivating, and aligned with your purpose.”
3. Tap into manufacturing pride.
Manufacturers can and should use the above tips to try to build more connected and caring workplace cultures. But for workers of a certain era—or belief system—it may be difficult to get past their cynicism. Here’s your secret weapon: Messaging around pride.
By tapping into the deep pride manufacturing workers have for the work they do, the products they make, and the living they bring home to their families, you’ll be surprised at how many folks will hop on board to a shifting culture. Some of these employees may never truly open up in the way you envision, but by finding ways for team members to share the pride in their profession with new employees—and by tying that pride to how your employees treat each other—you’ll find a backdoor to the same result.
And it will be worth it. Connection can help almost everything we do at work be better—from engagement to inclusion, from innovation to teaming. As the cultural winds shift and we collectively rethink how we work post-pandemic, now is the time to reevaluate how you—and your organization—approach professional relationships. Being thoughtful about cultivating a sense of care and trust with your coworkers can make your workday a whole lot more fulfilling. It can also make you and your company more successful.


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