Employee Relationship Management:
What Kant and Grundtvig can teach you
about relationships

by Jonas Norgaard Mortensen and Karen Lumholt

Meaning and relationships are the things that drive your employees, and that give them the desire and courage to perform. Here you can read about why and how you manage your employees based on meaningful relationships, commitment and dignity.


Relationship management is about integrating and balancing heart, brain, person and profession, and houses a number of paradoxes.

As manager, it is your task and responsibility to produce, optimise and economise. But humans can never be reduced to merely being a means to someone else’s ends. If a human becomes an object for someone else, his dignity, and eventually his commitment, will disappear. This is a problem that many managers are currently faced with, namely that the dominating management paradigm has been strongly inspired by an industrial logic, e.g. New Public Management.
K. E. Løgstrup, a Danish theologan and philosopher, and author of “The Ethical Demand (Den etiske fordring)” (1956) affirms that we all hold a small part of each other’s life opportunities, world and destiny in our hands every day. Our lives are intertwined. We can do little else but develop through our relationships to one another.

The realisation of the human’s relational being, its dignity and opportunities for commitment are central to personalism. Personalism can be used as the ideational foundation for the management of relationships - the public manager’s most important skill.

“An individual’s identity and opportunities for development are connected to the relationship with their fellow humans. If the individual loses or feels alienated in relationships, then they lose a part of themselves and feel alien to themselves." 

Psychologist, Dorte Toudal Viftrup, in the anthology ”The Relational Person (Det relationelle menneske)” (2015)

Below you will see seven arguments concerning the necessity for managing relationships, and inspiration on how to manage them.

1. The human is a goal in itself.
The German philosopher, Kant, distinguishes between price (German: Preis) and dignity (German: Würde). When it concerns items, one refers to a market price, which depends on supply and demand. An item’s price reflects its function and possibility to fulfill an objective for us.

In that way, the item’s value is seen in relation to its potential as a means to reach an end, beyond the item itself. But what about humans, do they also have a price? No, says Kant. It would be wrong to perceive a human as merely a means to an end. Thus, humans cannot be said to have a price in the same manner as items can.

The human is a goal in itself. Therefore, the human has value (Würde), which is fundamentally different to price.

2. We can do little else but be personal
In the last many decades, management ideals have strived for professional management that is impersonal.

But, we can do little else but be personal.

Even a manager, who tries to be distant and impersonal, is perceived as a person – but as one who is impersonal in character.

There are no professional machines. Professionalism is developed by a person who has taken upon themselves the values, ideals, experiences, history, methods, language and ethics of the profession. Professionalism is deeply internalised in personalities, especially if it needs to develop depending on situation and person. If there is no personality, there can also be no professionalism. When professionals are reduced to functions, they cannot thrive, and thereby professionalism disappears.

The strong manager dares to enter into relationships with trust, to be appreciative, and emotionally available and present.

3. The language is magical
Language is more than speech. It is magical, Grundtvig felt.
Management language has often taken shape after certain periods. Words such as the front, the guard and operations reflect periods where the military commando culture was the ideal. Words such as function, section, operator and production are fetched from the industrial society’s mechanical world.

The language does not only reflect a world, but it also creates one. We treat people differently, depending on whether we call them colleagues or employees, children or students, customers, clients or members, mentally deficient or developmentally challenged.

The human is a matchless creature, as Grundtvig puts it, and therefore we can never completely figure each other out, or base one another completely on a formula. If we think that we can completely understand someone else, we are making a big mistake.

Language is the management’s strongest creator of culture. We can boost each other, or run one another down. We can appeal to the noble side of one another, and let language foster relationships, commitment and dignity.

4. Relationship management is concerned with handling conflicts
It is not good for a human to be alone, but it is not always easy for humans to spend time with others.
The working life’s power hierarchies, performance requirements and competitive culture often puts pressure on work relationships. Relationship tensions and fractured relationships at work remove the joy from work and fill the days with insecurity and frustration.

Relationship tensions are detrimental to human wellbeing, and it is the manager's responsibility and duty to take hold of relational dissatisfaction and to restore relationships.

A manager needs to be a conflict mediator, bringing opposing parties together and creating a common understanding and reconciliation. It requires strength and courage, insight into the employees’ everyday lives, and relationship skills.

“Personalism inspires me to see that management is all about the employees. Ït must be rooted in the employees’ passion. They are the ones who are the gold in the organisation. The relationships in the organisation are the heart of the organisation.”

Signe Jarvad, Head of four cultural institutions in Copenhagen Municipality, in the anthology “The Personal Community (Det personlige samfund)” (2015).

5. Meaning is the most important motivation
The Happiness Research Institute has found that, in Denmark, we base a large part of our perceived happiness on the quality of our work lives. The Institute has also mapped out what provides work satisfaction: It is meaning and relationships.

Colleagues, and the experience of a meaningful work life, is of crucial significance to us. We need to be able to identify a meaning in our work, in order to experience work satisfaction.

But what is meaning? The word meaning can refer to a linguistic understanding (do I understand it this way?), a rational understanding (is it logical), and an existential understanding (does it harmonise with my values). The manager needs to operate on all three levels - the more harmony there is between the three levels, the more satisfaction is achieved.
The manager’s task is to produce meaning.

6. Work satisfaction provides results
A personal, valued and relational management provides work satisfaction. Enjoyment of ones work can be directly construed in the bottom line. The correlation between work satisfaction and economic results is underscored in, among others, the World Happiness Report, which is published by Earth Institute at Columbia University, on behalf of the UN.

The perception of happiness is favourable for success in the work place, because it promotes productivity, creativity and collaboration, and reduces sick leave.

Work satisfaction provides good ideas. Our brains perform differently when we are happy. Happy employees are better at working together and entering into relationships in the work place. It also makes it easier to think creatively.

7. Relationships are the most important capital
Relationships are a capital on a par with financial capital, educational capital and production capital.

Sociologist, Emilia van Hauen, defines the productive capital as an infrastructure that ensures clear goals and good results. Above is the relational capital: a good working environment, where strong relationships and sustainable social contexts can be cultivated.

These two forms of capital mutually support one another. The terms relational and productive capital are inspired by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu’s, concepts of economic, cultural and social capital.

The American, Robert Putnam, defines social capital as corresponding to social trust, the norm of reciprocation and networks of commitment. Social trust is the mutual belief and security in one another. Reciprocity and the norm of reciprocation does not imply a specific exchange. A good partnership will only be possible if there is general norm that a service does not need to unfold into a “here and now” or “giving in order to receive” counter-service, but rather that it can be postponed to some time in the future.

Thus, the trust in reciprocity expresses a diffuse exchange; it refers to a continuous exchange ratio, which at any given time may be unbalanced, but where there is a trust that there will be a balance in the long term.

According to Putnam, social capital is created and consolidated over a long period of time, and through a long and sensitive process. But it can quickly be broken down into mistrust, lack of mutual responsibility and weak networks.
Unfortunately, this occurs when the understanding of people’s relationships, their need for commitment and intrinsic dignity does not exist.

First published in Danish 28/08/2015.