Why Relational Leadership Matters

Given the current focus on workplace culture in business media, why do so many organizations still struggle with creating and sustaining a healthy workplace culture?

A friend of mine recently confided to me that her leaders are brilliant contributors to their industry, but they seem clueless about how to actually lead people. And therein lies the problem – organizations often hire leaders for their skill set in operational matters rather than relational matters.

Organizations often promote people to management positions because they are good at their jobs – they want people who know how to do the work. This makes a lot of sense from a functional perspective because team members can rely on their leaders to be specialists or experts in their field. When these people take on their new roles, they will naturally want to focus on what they are good at, which is the work itself. And they may be tempted to try to gain the trust of their team through demonstrating their own competence.

Operational leadership and relational leadership both drive results, but the best organizations are focused on both.

But this approach can easily miss a vitally important part of leadership – namely, relational leadership.

Relational leadership is an approach where leaders focus their attention on supporting their team members, showing care for them as whole persons whose lives extend beyond the boundaries of the workplace. Relational leaders also pay attention to the team environment. They know that improving workplace culture by focusing on people will yield better long-term operational results.

In the research we conducted for our new book, The Culture Question, we noticed a clear link between people-focused leaders and respondents reporting that they had a great place to work. This makes a lot sense when you consider the opposite – if your boss ignores you or is unkind, you will be unlikely to think you have a great place to work.

Of all the links we found in our survey, the strongest was between these two statements: “My leader cares about me as a person” and “I trust my leader.” Therefore it is more important for leaders who are operationally competent to demonstrate care for their employees rather than their competence in the tasks required for the job.

So what can organizations do to ensure they are hiring relationally competent leaders?

Rather than concentrating solely on hiring leaders who are great with people, we believe that organizations should take a more balanced approach. When you are searching for your next leader, make sure you can give a resounding “Yes!” to the following questions:

1. Does the candidate have the aptitude and/or required experience to understand the tasks required for the job and support those who are performing them?

Notice that the focus here isn’t on getting the most skilled candidate into the job, or the person with the most seniority. Rather, the focus is on getting someone who has the necessary skills and aptitude to support the team.

2. Does the candidate like people?

It’s difficult to lead a team if you don’t also like people. Liking people makes it more likely that your candidate will pay attention to their team members rather than avoid them or treat them like a means to an end.

Operational leadership and relational leadership both drive results, but the best organizations are focused on both.

For more free resources, visit our resources page.


Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

Eric is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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