In a word, relationships. Relationships employees have with their leaders (trust), with their jobs (pride), and with other employees (camaraderie). Over the past 25 years, Great Place to Work® Institute has confirmed the importance of relationships to the experience of a great workplace through research and consulting. And here’s something we know for sure…while HR practices do matter, it’s the execution of those practices in ways that build strong relationships that make for a great place to work.

The work of the Institute began in the early 1980s, when founder Robert Levering interviewed thousands of employees for his book, The 100 Best Companies to Work For in America. Today, the premise of the book has become an annual list published in Fortune magazine, thousands of interviews have become hundreds of thousands of surveys, and our understanding of what makes a great workplace has become deeper and more sophisticated. We also have a better understanding of the financial impact of attending to the workplace. In the U.S., the publicly-traded group of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For® outperforms the S&P 500 and the Russell 3000 Index year after year.

What do these list-making great workplaces do that others don’t? They ensure an environment in which people trust the leaders they work for, have pride in what they do and enjoy the people they work with.

Trust
When employees in great workplaces talk about that first relationship, trust, their comments are nuanced and rich…and it is immediately apparent how the trust they have in their leaders translates to better company performance. Think about the people in your life (at work or at home) whom you trust, and who you know trust you. Communication is easier and quicker; there is a shorthand that exists with those we trust. We give them the benefit of the doubt when there are miscommunications. Agreement on goals is more likely, and disagreements are addressed in ways that preserve the relationship. A similar pattern appears in trusting business relationships—we are not always second-guessing motives, and we can rely on other people to follow through on their commitments.

Trust is built and strengthened by doing three things: increasing employees’ sense of credibility, respect and fairness. The first, credibility, encapsulates employee beliefs about their leaders and managers. When leaders put mechanisms for communication in place, share the rationale behind decisions, and do what is right for both the employees and the longevity of the organization, they earn employees’ faith that they are credible.

At Insomniac Games, a California-based video game developer, any time there is a big announcement, an email is sent. Sounds like any company, right? But in this case, the email is followed up by the company’s founder and CEO, who visits each department to talk with groups and answer questions. He also checks to make sure that anyone absent has an opportunity to hear the message face to face and schedules follow-up sessions if necessary. In doing so, people get the information they need to do their jobs even better. And by delivering messages personally, CEO Ted Price demonstrates both his competence in running the business and his openness to employee feedback.

The second aspect of trust, respect, refers to the employees’ beliefs that leaders support them personally and professionally, that they wish to collaborate and partner with them on suggestions and decisions, and that leaders care about them as people, not just as employees. Note that this is a belief on the part of employees; no matter how caring a leader may be, unless he signals that to employees, they won’t experience a respectful environment.

When an associate at Umpqua Bank encounters an opportunity to make a decision affecting the business or customer service, she is encouraged to make a judgment call based on the question, “What would you do if it were your business?” This level of empowerment allows associates to go above and beyond for customers, resulting in stories of associates waiving fees they feel would damage the customer relationship, taking groceries home for customers, even chopping wood for one elderly customer who came in to stop payment on a check to a provider who failed to complete the job. Umpqua’s associates are trusted to make the right call for the business, and as a result, they feel they are respected and seen as an important part in the organization’s success.

The final piece of trust, fairness, is the belief that leaders create a level playing field, treating people equitably and impartially, and allowing them to voice concerns about decisions. Of all the dimensions of trust, a consistent perception of fairness is the most difficult to attain. Issues of salary and bonuses reside here, in addition to diversity and the appeal of management decisions. Fair does not mean equal, but it does mean that every employee feels as if he or she is a full member of the organization.

Valero Energy Corporation, which owns and operates refineries and retail gas stations, recognizes employees at all levels with a cash bonus. Bonuses for retail store managers and assistant managers are based on store performance, and bonuses for employees who work in the stores/stations are based on customer service. Executives receive bonuses only when all employees receive bonuses. While a company-wide bonus structure isn’t possible for many companies, something as simple as a peer recognition program can signal that everyone has a chance to be recognized for their hard work.

Pride
The second of the three relationships found in great workplaces is the relationship between the employee and his or her work. People experience a great workplace when they feel as though they make a difference in their organization—that their work is meaningful. They are also proud of their team’s accomplishments and the contributions the organization makes to the community at large. Often, pride comes from the employee’s sense that he or she contributes to the organization’s values, the goods and services it produces, and the philanthropic contributions the organization makes to better their communities. While largely internalized, a healthy sense of pride can be bolstered by actions on the part of leaders.

The Scooter Store, one of America’s largest suppliers of power wheelchairs and scooters, conducts a session in their orientations they call “Freedom Expressions.” The first day of new-employee orientation, participants are supplied with plain white paper, markers and crayons, with the instruction to draw what “freedom” and “independence” would look like if they were trying to explain them to someone who did not speak English. Drawings submitted by the students range from spending time with children to chasing dreams such as skydiving or auto-racing. At the end of the class, these drawings are displayed, and the new employees are reminded of how Scooter Store’s customers are missing out on events such as these due to the loss of mobility. This exercise provides a creative way for new employees to plug into what is so inspiring about the company’s mission, values and product.

Camaraderie
The final relationship necessary in a great workplace is camaraderie, which means that employees enjoy healthy and strong relationships with people at work. People feel welcomed from the very first day, through everything from formal orientation activities to meaningful interactions with coworkers and mentors. They feel as though everyone is working toward one common goal, and that they can be authentic at work. While some degree of camaraderie can be attributed to good hiring, organizations also take action to build a sense of family. They provide opportunities for employees to collaborate and interact outside of work. Some also provide outlets for employees to help one another in times of need. Still others celebrate the unique gifts of their employees that may not otherwise be discovered in the course of a normal workday.

Factset Research Systems, a financial software company, goes above and beyond in their efforts to welcome and assimilate new employees and make sure they feel at home. FactSetters often start having fun together before their first day of work, as new-hire classes meet virtually on Facebook and in-person for social events before training begins. For college recruits, the company even sends care packages during the final weeks of exams. Then, new hires are invited to attend a welcome party on the night before training to give them an opportunity to get to know each other, as well as their managers, trainers and future colleagues. There are also weekly social events throughout training to allow new hires to enjoy themselves after spending time in the training classroom. While any one of these practices is likely to increase camaraderie, in total they signal how important it is to Factset’s leaders that employees are friends as well as coworkers.

If you are a leader aiming to create a great workplace, you’d go a long way toward doing so by focusing on these three relationships. Great workplaces cannot be created simply by putting a policy in place or launching a cultural initiative. While both are reasonable steps, great workplaces are much more about day-to-day interactions than they are about policy manuals and strategic intentions. Leaders often put such things in place because simply focusing on relationships seems too easy…no one wakes up in the morning intending to make a mess of the workplace. While trust may be intuitively obvious, the first step for leaders is to make an attitude adjustment—treat every decision, whether it seems to be related to employees or not—as a means to build trust or break it down. Then, choose the avenue that builds a great workplace. iBi