[This article is part of a series in which I'm sharing key lessons I've learned about what drives or derails effective leadership, distilled during my 17 year career assessing and coaching executives. Previous articles included the introduction to the series, a focus on charismatic/inspirational leadership, a summary of transformational leadership (with mention of two complimentary styles called contingent reward and instrumental leadership), and a summary of tactics leaders can use to project greater charisma.]
The heroic narrative of leadership describes a great man or woman inspiring others with their extraordinary vision and charisma. They speak and others listen. They act and others respond in ways that amplify the impact of that initial action. Considering this traditional and even romantic notion of leadership, it's easy to forget that at it’s core, leadership is a highly interpersonal skill that occurs close to 'the ground,' and revolves around the basic act of relationship-building.
Relationships are essential for leaders. The dilemma organizational leaders face is terrifying - they’re accountable for a range of activities they cannot possibly complete on their own. It is physically impossible for them to reach their objectives without the help of others, and yet if they fail to do so they alone will receive the blame. As a result, they must harness people around them in ways that mobilize effort at scale to achieve their goals. The glue that keeps this dynamic social structure and mobilization effort together is ‘relationships.’ (It’s no wonder that the Center for Creative Leadership found years ago that a key derailer for managers was a lack of interpersonal skills, in other words, an inability to form strong relationships.)
To explore this topic further, in this article I’ll describe evidence-based and conceptual perspectives on how relationships and relationship-building contribute to leadership effectiveness. The three frameworks I’ll review describe relationship-building as 1) the leader’s responsibility, 2) a shared activity amongst many group members, and 3) a mutual activity involving both leader and follower.
At the end of the article I’ll also offer several practical suggestions on how leaders might consider refining their relationship-building skills.
Relationship building as a leader activity
In this first section, I’ll summarize several perspectives that assume relationship-building happens based on the leader’s behaviour. These perspectives all suggest leaders need to demonstrate certain considerate or supportive behaviours to foster relationships, and that if they express them, positive outcomes will result. This perspective doesn’t assume a participatory role for the recipient or follower, but rather revolves around the leader. As I review each perspective, I’ll share examples of what specific behaviours might foster stronger bonds between leaders and followers.
The Ohio State Leadership Studies
In the 1940s researchers at Ohio State University conducted one of the first studies examining what behaviours contribute to effectiveness among leaders. The results described two broad and independent behavioural categories (i.e., they could co-exist at the same time). The first called initiating structure, suggested that leaders need to define with clarity their own role and their expectations for staff (e.g., sample descriptors included ‘makes his/her attitudes clear to the group,’ ‘maintains definite standards of performance,’ and ‘sees to it that the work of group members is coordinated’). The second dimension however was more relationship-oriented, and was called simply consideration. This dimension summarized behaviours that cultivate or at least attend to relationships with others (e.g., ‘does personal favours for group members,’ ‘finds time to listen to group members,’ and ‘is friendly and approachable’).
The University of Michigan leadership studies
Around the same time the Ohio State studies were unfolding, researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a similar large scale investigation about what differentiates effective and ineffective leaders. Their results converged with Ohio State’s findings, as they also found that relationship supporting behaviours were vital to leadership effectiveness. They concluded that effective managers engaged in two categories of key behaviours, 1) task-oriented behaviour such as planning and coordinating work in their teams, which aligned with Ohio State's 'initiating structure,' and 2) relationship-oriented behaviours such as showing trust and confidence, acting friendly and considerate, and trying to understand subordinate problems (among others), which paralleled Ohio State's 'consideration dimension.' (The Michigan studies also found a third set of behaviours related to participative leadership were also important, and these included facilitating group discussions about decision making, communication patterns, and conflict management.)
Transformational and Charismatic leadership
As notions of charismatic and inspirational leadership became a focus for researchers in the 1980s, these frameworks also emphasized the importance of relationship-building behaviours for leaders. For example the Transformational leadership frameworks created by the researchers like Bass and Podsakoff subsume qualities like treating others as unique and as possessing different needs, showing thoughtfulness and respect for others’ feelings, and teaching and coaching. In a similar way Charismatic leadership theory describes the importance of leaders developing mutual liking and respect with others, showing sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others, and expressing personal concern for others.
In total, all of these frameworks highlight the importance of leaders expressing relationship-oriented behaviours in order to maximize their effectiveness.
Relationship building as a shared behaviour
While some frameworks put the onus for relationship cultivation on the leader, another called relational leadership suggests that relationship-building, and the practice of leadership itself is a shared activity.
One key principle within this paradigm is that 'leadership' (including all the force, energy and momentum we associate with it) emerges not from the appointed leader, but from the relationships built among group members. In other words, leadership is located in, or emerges from *the relationships themselves*, the ‘space between’ people, the ‘mortar between the bricks.’ Another way to think about this is that leadership materializes from the 'collective dynamic' formed by the relationships among the parties involved. Colleagues co-construct ‘leadership’ together, in a kind of partnership. The appointed leader's voice is just one among many.
Another key principle within this perspective is that apart from the leader being the hero who sparks the formation of these relationships, all group members assume full responsibility to form and nurture these relationships with each other.
Yet another characteristic of this approach is that it assumes influence flows around in different directions, to and from many individuals, and not just from leader to followers inside a hierarchical and unidirectional system. (This point mimics my own observations of how leadership functions in organizations, as I often see executives seeking to influence lateral peers or other stakeholders, for example in another department, as much or more as their own teams.)
As you might expect, this way of thinking about leadership assumes decentralized (or at least flatter) power dynamics, and requires intense dialogue/listening/communication, as well as mutual respect.
This is a highly conceptual model of leadership, and hasn’t yet been tested extensively with data. However it represents a distinct and increasingly influential paradigm describing what relationships mean in a leadership context.
Also unlike in the previous section, which lends itself to assembling checklists of behaviours for leaders to follow, relational leadership rather represents a set of principles, or a way of being in the world, a kind of philosophy that leaders and team members can follow together.
So to summarize, while some frameworks of leadership assume the leader is the key agent of change and that responsibility for relationship-building rests with them, relational leadership suggests that all team members create 'leadership' together through the ties they form with each other, and that they all share the responsibility for creating these bonds.
Relationship building as mutual activity
The most popular and scrutinized model of leadership that emphasizes the importance of relationships is called Leader Member Exchange (LMX). This framework incorporates elements of the leader-centric and relational models mentioned above, by assuming that the responsibility for relationship development falls on both the leader and the ‘member’ (which could be a direct report, a peer or any other stakeholder).
This framework suggests that each relationship a leader forms with another person is unique, and that the quality of that relationship influences many other kinds of positive downstream outcomes.
Low-quality LMX relationships involve mere economic exchanges as outlined in the employment contract.
High-quality LMX relationships by contrast involve a broader range of ‘social’ exchanges, that include the sharing of support and resources between both parties. What’s exchanged in high-quality LMX relationships? These can include monetary rewards, goods, services, status, information, and social-emotional support.
To help better visualize what a high-quality relationship looks like, some key attributes include affection (i.e., the development of personal liking unrelated to professional values), loyalty (e.g., both members expressing public support for each other), contribution (i.e., both members completing tasks for the other that go beyond the strict job description), and professional respect (i.e., both parties showing respect and admiration for the other’s knowledge, competence and skills).
Voluminous research finds that high-quality LMX relationships predict almost every kind of desirable outcome, including subordinate job performance, citizenship behaviour, job satisfaction, and commitment to stay with the organization (among many others).
How do you know if you have a high-quality LMX relationship with your leader? Here are some questions you can ask yourself to diagnose your relationship quality. From the perspective of the subordinate, you have a high quality relationship if you feel like …
- Your overall working relationship is effective;
- Your supervisor understands your job and needs;
- Your supervisor recognizes your potential;
- Your supervisor would help you solve problems at work if needed;
- Your supervisor would bail you out of a sticky situation;
- You would defend your supervisor and their positions if they were absent;
- You and your manager have a two-way exchange relationship;
- If you do something for your manager, he or she will eventually repay you.
Based on the centrality of relationship building to leadership effectiveness, in this section I’ll offer several practical suggestions on how leaders can think about enhancing their skills in this area.
More time, but with specific people
In leadership development programs I’m involved with, after completing an in-depth assessment executives often realize that they want to spend more time building relationships with specific strategic stakeholders. As a result they often set four main types of relationship goals:
- To spend a greater portion of time coaching team members;
- To build lateral relationships in other functional areas as a way to prepare for difficult conversations in the future;
- To build bonds as a way to de-isolate and further integrate themselves into decision making;
- To develop rapport to support learning and knowledge acquisition about unfamiliar areas of the business.
If you want to build stronger relationship as a leader, you could consider which of these types of goals address your needs, and then create more detailed plans on how to address that theme.
Express consideration and support
Another way leaders can enhance their relationships is to focus on demonstrating the consideration behaviours mentioned in frameworks like Transformational and Charismatic leadership.
Take a look at the Appendix at the end of this article for a list of relationship-oriented behaviours distilled from these frameworks, that you can consider weaving into your repertoire more often.
Tap into relational leadership
As abstract as the relational leadership framework is, it also suggests two possible developmental actions.
First, the paradigm hints that the overall relationship quality or capital within a team may be critical for enabling shared leadership to emerge. Therefore, you could ask yourself, 'have I facilitated the building of strong relationships between my team members?' If not, consider scheduling a team building session that mixes both business and development topics alongside socializing. Also, ensure you're scheduling team-wide meetings which include all your direct reports and possibly their subordinates, in ways that allow dialogue and social connection between them (i.e., no silos within the team). Third, consider scheduling casual social outings like attending a sporting event together, or holding a barbecue at a team member's house. Any kind of organized social activity should boost overall relationship quality in the team.
The second development action that relational leadership suggests is that leaders should step back from a directive posture from time to time, and look for moments to engage in intensive dialogue and listening. Using this approach at the right time (i.e., outside of a crisis period), see if shared leadership emerges as a result of cultivating positive relationships within the group.
Counteract risks from large teams and high workload
If you lead a large team, or if you’re managing a considerable workload, then it will be much more difficult for you to cultivate strong relationships with other key stakeholders.
If this is your reality, and you want to prioritize relationship building, try picking two of the most important relationships you’d like to develop, and selecting ONE step you can take to improve those connections. With this achievable goal in mind, strive for some modest incremental improvement in relationship quality, despite the demands you’re facing.
Surface your schemas
The ways we think about relationships and the people we relate to can exhibit strong influences on how we interact. To add further difficulty, some of these biasing beliefs can sit below our level of awareness.
As an exercise, and to help surface these underlying thought patterns (or schemas as they’re called), take a blank piece of paper, draw a line down the middle and do the following:
- On the left hand side of the page, write down what you as a leader assume and believe about relationships in general;
- On the right hand side of the page, write down what you as a leader assume and believe about others, including potential followers;
- After capturing your thoughts, what patterns do you see emerging? Do you see someone who feels positive/secure, anxious, or avoidant about relationships?
Use this information to think about what kind of goal you need to set for yourself in terms of relationship-building.
For example if you feel anxious about relationships, maybe you need to set a goal to help you reduce the number of times you ask for reassurance. Or if you feel avoidant about relationships, maybe you need to set a goal to approach people more often and with a positive and open mindset.
In this article I’ve described three different perspectives on how relationships may contribute to leadership effectiveness. These paradigms included leader-centric models that assume the leader needs to act in ways that foster bonds with others (e.g., Ohio State, Michigan, Transformational and Charismatic leadership), shared models that assume leadership is decentralized and that the onus for relationship-building is shared among many, and a model that assumes relationship building is a mutual activity between leaders and their colleagues (e.g., LMX).
Within LMX, I also described several ways to diagnose high vs low quality leader-member relationships.
Finally, I also shared some practical suggestions on how leaders might consider strengthening their relationships with others.
I hope these perspectives and suggestions help convince you to prioritize relationship-building activities, and contribute to fostering rich and rewarding relationships with those you lead and work with.
As always I would welcome your feedback, positive or constructive, on anything you read, and I would love to learn from your perspective.
If you’d like to comment on this article, you can do so below. In order to comment, you’ll need to enter your name and email address, and to click a confirmation email you receive, a process that ensures you’re real and not a robot (you won’t need to create a password). If you prefer you can also email me your feedback at email@example.com.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to receive these newsletter issues direct to your inbox, please click the blue ‘Sign up now’ button below.
Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has assessed and coached leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He's also worked with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.
Transformational leadership dimensions related to relationship building:
Individual consideration (from Bass' model)
- Spend time teaching and coaching
- Treat followers as individuals rather than just members of a group
- Consider individual followers as having different needs, abilities, and aspirations from others
- Help followers to develop their strengths
Individualized support (from Podsakoff's model)
- Acts in ways that consider my feelings
- Respect for my personal feelings
- Behaves in a manner that is thoughtful of my personal needs
- Treats me with consideration of my personal feelings
Charismatic leadership dimensions related to relationship building:
Sensitivity to members’ needs: refers to showing sensitivity to the needs and feelings of other members in the organization.
- Influences others by developing mutual liking and respect
- Shows sensitivity for the needs and feelings of the other members in the organization
- Often expresses personal concern for the needs and feelings of other members in the organization