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The Future of Leadership: Why Relational Skills Are Key for Success

Relationships Heart

Relationships are at the heart of leadership. They are the foundation upon which trust, communication, and collaboration are built. They are how we connect, learn, and get things done.   

We observe with all the uncertainty, complexity, high demands, and massive change around the way we work, that work is now profoundly more transactional and less relational, and that is eroding workplace culture and disconnecting people.  

Here is a story that illustrates this well.   

A communications colleague of mine recently attended a two-day work gathering where, for the first time, she would meet her team live and in person. She was excited! It was an opportunity to finally connect and get to know her teammates.   

To her dismay, what unfolded in those two days was a series of uninspired presentations about the work at hand with little to no space to contribute, collaborate or ideate. Nor was any space made for team building or social connection, which you’d think would be the primary motivation for an in-person gathering.   

Instead of feeling connected, energized, and committed to her team and the mission, she left feeling tired, frustrated and disconnected.    

I tell this story because leaders who sacrifice the relational interactions in favour of the transactional (focusing only on efficiency and productivity) do a disservice to both. Because getting to results is not about the work, it’s about the people doing the work.  Sure, you can demand compliance from people in the short term, but the better, more sustainable bet is to inspire commitment and we do that through relationships. Relationships are how the work gets done and how we build and nurture culture.  

It’s not a binary choice between transactional or relational; we need both. They are inextricably linked, yet today they are wildly out of balance.  

Leaders have a crucial role to play in restoring the relational/transactional equilibrium, resetting expectations relative to efficiency and productivity, and helping organizations rebuild their relational muscles. It starts with leaders setting standards and role modelling relational behaviours.  

The Gallup organization says leaders who establish positive relationships with team members increase positive attitudes toward organizations. And with the high rate of attrition today, that’s a good and needed thing.   

Further data from the field of social psychology demonstrates that leaders who prioritize relationships with their employees and recognize their people as unique individuals are more likely to achieve their goals, build trust, and have a positive impact on things like engagement, productivity and job satisfaction.  And according to a great HBR article last year, companies that are run by these types of leaders enjoy higher client satisfaction, a better bottom line, and boosted shareholder returns.  

How do leaders become relational leaders? We offer three ideas as a roadmap to get you started.  

Shift the Mindset – Adapt & Embrace 

There’s no question that remote/hybrid work makes it harder to connect and build trusting relationships. Many leaders cling to the belief that we can only do that work in real-life, person-to-person interactions, yet those in-person moments are less frequent. It’s also in our nature to default to what is comfortable. Many of us know how to build relationships in person because up until three years ago, it’s all we knew. We’re not as confident doing it online or perhaps we have a self-limiting belief we can’t.  

The way we work has forever changed, so it stands to reason we need to change too. Remote and hybrid work is becoming normalized, some early-career employees have never experienced the in-person office, and keeping our distributed teams connected and engaged is our reality.  This transformation requires us to shift our mindset to adapt and accept rather than resist and reject. With some intention and practice, we can get more comfortable connecting with others and building relationships through a Zoom or Teams screen.   

The good news is the skills and techniques we use to build relationships haven’t changed; they just require more amplification online.  

Think about how you build relationships in person. How would you use or adapt those skills to build relationships remotely?  

Create Space for Connection   

The lack of connection, conversation and collaboration at work has shifted our focus to efficiency and productivity, so much so that we see those relational activities as interruptions that take us away from the doing.  

Leaders can play a role in shifting this imbalance and strengthening those atrophied relational muscles by creating “water-cooler” space for those non-work moments where relationships are built. Team lunches where work isn’t discussed or incorporating time at the top of team meetings to share personal highlights are two ideas. We highlight more ideas in our blog how to build and humanize work relationships.  

More importantly, bringing people to the office requires leaders to be intentional and purposeful and to re-calibrate expectations. If people are measured solely by what they get done, they’ll resist activities that take them away from the doing.  It’s up to leaders to reinforce the value of building connections and relationships as a path to getting the work done, and to build more space and flexibility into deadlines and output expectations. The intention comes from maximizing the in-person experience to foster connection and collaboration.    

To contrast the story that opened this blog, we recently facilitated a two-day retreat for a newly formed team who was coming together in-person, for the first time in a long time, to think about future strategic directions. A generous amount of time was dedicated to the team getting to know each other and building relationships. They shared their stories, values and hidden talents, collaborated through a scavenger hunt, and socialized over lunch and dinner. The result was a connected team who were excited and engaged about the future of the organization.  And the leaders felt like they would reap the benefits of these connections as they continued the work in the future. 

How can you create more space for relationship building in your team interactions?    

Hone Your Relational Skills   

If you follow my writing, you know I loathe the term ‘soft skills’ (check out Nix the ‘Soft Skills’ Label). We call them relational skills, as they enable us to interact effectively and build relationships with others. As we look to the future, which will continue to be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, it’s our relational skills – our ability to connect, communicate, coach, adapt, empathize – that will be the critical and differentiating skills for leaders.  

With respect to building relationships online, we offer leaders three relationship skills to increase connection:

Be Present: Being fully present (free from distracting thoughts and actions) in online meetings not only helps you listen and notice more, it lets people know that you value their time and input. It also brings the right energy and sets the tone for engaged interaction.  

Be Curious: The pathway to getting to know people is curiosity – finding out what’s important to them and hearing their ideas.  Leaders who ask powerful, open-ended questions that invite dialogue and spark conversations and who listen to learn and understand, hear more and get to know people as the unique individuals they are. This is the basis for relationship building.  

Be Real: As humans, we are wired to connect and can smell inauthenticity a mile off. Being open, sharing information about yourself and being vulnerable makes you human and sets the example for others to do the same.   

How well do your people know you? How well do you know them?  

We believe standing firmly on a platform of relational leadership is the path forward and will serve us and others well as we step into the unknown and turbulent future. Indeed, it will be a leader’s competitive advantage.  

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