Relationships in Leadership: Building Stronger Teams

    Cultivating Relationships in Leadership: Building Stronger Teams

    Chalk and cheese. Oil and water. I’m sure you can think of someone you feel that way about, and it’s easy to feel frustrated at them. But a little insight goes a long way.

    We’re all dealing with our own problems and challenges and we’re all just humans trying our best. When we don’t feel safe to share and be our human selves at work, we bottle up our feelings. They will always come out, whether it’s snapping at a colleague, your partner at home, or personally beating yourself up. It's not healthy to keep secrets that would help others understand what you are dealing with so they can help. We’re only as sick as our secrets.

    If you’ve been on the receiving end of gossip, rumors or bullying, like I have, you’ll know how horrible it feels. Before we do that to others, we need to stop and have a little humanity. We need to focus on empathy, connection, and trust, on building team relationships.

    In my new book, I define Relationships in leadership as demonstrating you care about your team by connecting with your team on a human level. It all comes down to how CAREing you are.

    I don’t mean the cuddly kind of care. I mean Clarity, to ensure people are on the same line of the same page and not in different books. Autonomy, to give people a say in how things are done and a sense of freedom and ownership within clearly defined parameters. Fostering Relationships in leadership ensure that people feel a sense of belonging, inclusion and connection. It’s the WHO to the WHAT and the HOW. Equity is the WANT that pulls it all together – more on that in the next article…

    Let’s talk about the R for Relationships of CARE.

    Building team relationships – achieving the human R part – requires leaders to really intentionally know each of the humans they serve.

    The Foundation of Effective Leadership: Why Relationships Matter

    The R factor (Relationships) is the most important part of the CARE Equation. Ever feel like you spend every day fighting fires? Chances are, your teams don’t have enough Clarity and Autonomy. When you’re spending all your time picking up the pieces, you have none left for building team Relationships.

    But relationships with management are the top factor in employees’ job satisfaction (McKinsey & Co). 75% of survey participants said that the most stressful aspect of their job was their immediate boss (HBR). As a leader, you play a huge part in setting the happiness and/or stress levels of your team, to enhance engagement, when wrong steps can easily damage it.

    Some of the biggest red flags of a disconnect between leadership and not spending enough time building relationships are:

    • People isolate and disconnect.
    • People put their guards up.
    • They become territorial.
    • You hear them gossiping and making wrong assumptions about each other.

    By building team Relationships, I don’t mean small talk by the watercooler. I mean deliberately and intentionally spending quality time with your team to talk about nonwork stuff and do nonwork stuff, to understand how their lives and experiences shaped them into the human beings that you see at work every day. Enhancing leadership and relationships means actively striving to know, not assume, what these people need to be fully engaged. It also means developing vulnerability and curiosity, to forge deeper connections and trust. This is how you form a personalized approach, to remove barriers standing in the way of both you and your teams.

    When you put people ahead of results, you get both. When you put results ahead of people, you get neither!

    Personal Journeys: The Inspiration Behind Focusing on Relationships

    I explore key relationship biases in my book and share personal experiences – ‘Alexamples’ – that highlight why Relationships is a crucial aspect in the CARE framework.

    For example, a couple of years ago at the height of the Covid pandemic, at a time when we were all working remotely and I was deep in the weeds working on pivoting the business to a new model, one of my team members adopted a child. My head was down, so I wasn’t focusing on my people.

    When I finally started doing one-on-ones again – where I get to ask people nonwork questions – I learned that this team member hadn’t had day-care on Tuesdays. For three months, she’d been looking after her new child while doing the same amount of work as before. If I had known about her childcare situation, I could have ensured that the team refrained from communicating with her on Tuesdays or given her half a day off. This is the danger of operating under “no news is good news”. I wasn’t making time for myself to be available to hear anything different, so I assumed everyone was okay.

    A healthy team needs to know what each person is struggling with, at work and at home. Last year, I was dealing with a lot and needed an extended break. When I came back to work after taking 3 weeks off to recharge, I was vulnerable and honest with the team about why. If I hadn’t been, they would have thought I was lazy and taking advantage of being the boss. Gossiping about my commitment would have damaged collaboration and output.

    After I shared this with them, they stepped up and helped. They had my back. We have a stronger team because of that leadership connection and vulnerability.

    Benefits of building strong relationships

    Strengthening Team Dynamics with Relationship-Building

    We all have a tendency to assume that everyone is like us – that we all have the same needs, cognitive processing habits, preferences, fears, insecurities, and approaches. But that usually isn’t true. No one is ever right or wrong in how they feel or think, or in what they need.

    When we assume, the brain works its magic on prejudice and judgment. That employee who seems aloof or disinterested? They might be going through something at home. That employee who doesn’t seem to enjoy social gatherings? They are fun for some, but stressful for others. Never assume you know what is going on. To know is to not assume.

    Fostering relationships in leadership is about making intentional time available to meet your team where they are at. Who are these people we work with? What really makes them tick? What do they care about and get motivated by? Ask! Do you consider yourself more introverted or more extraverted? What’s your conflict-resolution style? Are you task-oriented or people-oriented? What motivates and inspires you? What does a great day look like for you? What is one goal you would like to accomplish this year outside of work?

    I even get to know what they like and don’t like about me! Listening allows me to have empathy and understanding for other people, and tailor how I lead them to their preferences, not mine. Remember, we were gifted with two ears and one mouth. Use them in that ratio.

    Early finish and a group dinner, anyone? How about a daytrip to a museum or an amusement park? These conversations and opportunities for leadership connections will create the team synergy that’s essential on those tough days.

    Psychological safety and relationships go hand in hand. Trusting and knowing our teammates lowers the threat response in our brains. When teams feel cognitively and psychologically safe enough to speak up, be authentic, express ideas and take risks, they will be more receptive to opening up to you about their personal lives. We are all struggling with something, and knowing what that is allows us to help and be supportive. Fostering relationships in leadership allows me to harness the teams’ strengths more effectively. It creates a happier, more satisfied team, with higher performance levels.

    You’ll know leadership connections are flourishing when:

    • People openly collaborate
    • They check in with each other throughout the day
    • They continually ask questions and show curiosity toward each other
    • They ask you questions about who you are as their leader

    Were all bananas

    Reflections on the Role of Relationships in My Leadership Practice

    Fostering relationships in leadership is the key to a higher-performing team. We can’t help people unless they ask for help. And people will not ask for help in an atmosphere of “let’s all pretend we’re perfect.” Don’t assume; make the effort to know and see each other as the unique humans we are.

    Foster empathy. Meet people where they are without judgment or prejudice. Give the benefit of the doubt. Be vulnerable. It takes courage, but it’s the only way to help others find their own voice and be vulnerable when they need to.

    Ask yourself: “What’s one thing my team should know about me that would better connect us and allow them to understand why I do what I do?” Ask them: “What is one thing I don’t know about you that will help me better connect with you?”

    Enhance your leadership and relationships by deepening team connections, for an immediate, profound, tangible impact. Pre-order my upcoming book now to discover strategies and insights.



    What makes relationships crucial in leadership?

    Relationships are the backbone of effective leadership. They foster trust, empathy, and genuine, human connection among team members and leaders, leading to psychological safety, higher levels of collaboration, engagement, and mutual support. This is the secret sauce to high-performing teams.

    How can leaders build and maintain strong relationships?

    See people as humans! Work to create Clarity, provide Autonomy, and really get to know team members – their motivations, their experiences, their challenges, and what has shaped them into the people they are today – to build Relationships. When you show empathy and truly listen, you can personalize your leadership approach and treat them how they want to be treated. Once you have these in place, you can provide Equity.

    In what ways do strong relationships enhance psychological safety in teams?

    Building team relationships creates an environment where team members feel comfortable being themselves, expressing their ideas, and taking risks without fear of judgment or repercussion. It fosters a culture of trust, openness, and support – the key to increased innovation and productivity, and high-performing teams.

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