As we consider possibilities for organizational change, I want to share a very insightful paper by psychologists Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks titled “Relational-Cultural Practice: Working in a Nonrelational World” (2002), published by the Wellesley Centers for Women.
Building on the pioneering work of psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, Drs. Hartling and Sparks distinguish between healthy “relational” cultures and dysfunctional “non-relational” cultures:
A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”
By contrast, the authors identify three types of “non-relational cultures” that hurt morale and productivity:
(1) “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
(2) “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
(3) brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.
What kind of workplace culture does your organization have? The answer probably says a lot about your organization and the experience of working there. In fact, I consider this paper to offer one of the most insightful frameworks for understanding organizational culture, especially as it relates to discouraging or enabling behaviors such as workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.
Linda Hartling is also the Director of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HDHS), a global network of educators, scholars, writers, practitioners, artists, activists, and students who are dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. I have been involved in the HDHS community for well over a decade and currently serve on its board of directors.
The paper was written specifically for mental health professionals, so there are repeated references to clinical work settings. However, anyone who is interested in employment relations should find it understandable and insightful.
This post was revised in January 2022.