Connecting Across Differences with Relational Coordination

Southwest Airlines jet on tarmac
Developed in the early 1990s from an in-depth field study of flight departures in the airline industry, relational coordination theory proposes that relationships characterized by shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect tend to support frequent, timely, accurate, problem-solving communication and vice versa, enabling stakeholders to effectively coordinate their work.

Relational coordination theory proposes a way to understand how all the complex entities we encounter, or are part of, such as work, school or healthcare, can be successful. The theory offers, according to the authors of a new article in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, “a mutually reinforcing process for coordinating work, the cross-cutting structures theorized to strengthen it, and the outcomes theorized to result from it.” “Yet,” they add, “nearly 30 years after the establishment of this theory, the empirical evidence supporting its use has not yet been synthesized, despite frequently being cited in the literature.” And so in “Revisiting Relational Coordination: A Systematic Review” they attempt that synthesis.

Those authors – Rendelle Bolton, a health services researcher for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research and PhD candidate in The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University; Caroline Logan, a senior associate for U.S. health at Abt Associates; and Jody Hoffer Gittell, professor at Heller and co-founder and board member of the Relational Coordination Collaborative – reviewed all the empirical studies assessing the predictors and outcomes of relational coordination published from 1991 to 2019 and found evidence to support the theory. Below, they answer questions about what motivated their effort and how their findings are changing the field.

Rendelle Bolton, left, Caroline Logan and Jody Hoffer Gittell

What motivated you to pursue this research?

As work has become more complex, specialized and interdependent, we wanted to better understand how people coordinate across boundaries to achieve their desired outcomes. Relational coordination theory tells us that relationships characterized by shared goals, shared knowledge, and mutual respect help to support frequent, timely, accurate, problem-solving communication, enabling participants to effectively coordinate their work. The theory also suggests that organizations facilitate or hinder the development of these relationships depending on the design of their structures.  We wanted to see what researchers have been finding in the field.

We’ve seen this body of research expand significantly since it first appeared in the literature almost 30 years ago. Initially identified in the airline industry, as shown in The Southwest Airlines Way, relational coordination has now been studied and measured in 73 industry contexts in the commercial, education, healthcare and human service sectors, and in 36 countries. It has been measured between workgroups, between organizations, and with clients. All of this suggested to us that the field was overdue for a comprehensive and systematic review of findings. We felt it would be valuable to examine the literature to date in order to comprehensively inventory the empirical work then analyze its findings to inform researchers and practitioners going forward. 

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research?

Developing inclusion and exclusion criteria that were both comprehensive and rigorous proved to be the most difficult aspect of this research. We wanted to ensure our review was methodologically rigorous but also inclusive enough to capture the multiple ways that relational coordination has been applied. Relational coordination has been measured in a number of ways – through a validated survey instrument, through modified survey instruments, and through interviews and focus groups. We included all of these ways of measuring relational coordination but had to exclude studies that failed to define their methods for measurement or that measured relational coordination using insufficient methods.

We felt it was critical to include null and unexpected findings to advance the theory, so we included published dissertations and conference proceedings which were more likely to include such findings. For example, relational coordination theory posits that a boundary spanner role – a job designed to bridge work across other roles – supports the development of relational coordination. In fact, we found that findings about boundary spanners were mixed suggesting there may be something about the context in which this role is implemented that determines whether it succeeds in fostering relational coordination.

In what ways is your research innovative and how do you think it will impact the field?

One innovation is the evolution of relational coordination theory from a linear model of performance to a dynamic model of organizational change.  This innovation is what makes the theory relevant to leaders who are working to create change on the foundation of positive relationships, in response to performance challenges they and their organizations are facing.  By creating change on the foundation of positive relationships, these leaders are also building the resilience they will need to respond to crises such as the pandemic, systemic racism, economic inequality and climate change.  The findings we documented in this paper will help to support their efforts and we are very excited about that!

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of relational coordination theory is how flexible it is with respect to industry and country context.  It is also highly flexible across levels of analysis.  Because relational coordination is a network concept, it can be applied in small groups, in large multi-sector ecosystems, and anywhere in between, so long as the work is interdependent.  As readers see this flexibility, they may be more open to exploring relational coordination in their own work, leading to even more innovation.

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