What Makes A Great Work Relationship?

Guest post from Graeme Findlay:

I just finished reading one of Dan’s previous posts, I’m your boss not your friend. He has some very sound advice and ten good reasons why it’s a bad idea for a manager and an employee to call themselves friends.

On reading the post, I was immediately reminded of a high-priced leadership development program that I once attended where we were presented with a different view. The model presented can be paraphrased by “Relationships are the foundation of all accomplishments; increase relationship and you increase results”. Taken to its logical extension, where relationships are universally good, this model fails for all of Dan’s ten reasons and more.

The problem with this model is a common one: over-simplification of a nuanced phenomenon. In their desire to have easily digestible ideas, proponents of leadership models generalise and simplify. And if there is one thing that everyone needs to know about leadership, it is that it is specific to the context and that it is inherently complex.  

This specificity and complexity should not deter us; leadership can be understood if we put the effort in. Let’s take this example of relationships.

Building close working relationships with a trusted inner circle of colleagues is a key leadership capability. I call this capability the Heartfelt Voice. The heartfelt voice is not about building friendships as we generally understand them. We need to get more granular and definitive about what we mean.

A ‘friendship relationship’ is a function of mutual care – if you care deeply about me, and I care deeply about you then we are friends. There is no doubt that this can be leveraged to deliver great results at work, but at other times it is an impediment and can work to actively undermine results.

To make sense of this, I define another aspect of work relationships which I call Relatedness.  Relatedness is not based on mutual care, it is based on mutual connection to a purpose. You and I might be complete strangers, but if we both share the same purpose, then this is the basis for delivering results. Relatedness to common purpose is an incredibly powerful motivator for collaboration. Therefore, building relatedness is a key leadership capability.

The sweet spot for leaders is to have both relationshipand relatedness. This is the heartfelt voice of leadership. A leader with a strong heartfelt voice builds high levels of relatedness to a common purpose, and then amplifies this by fostering an environment of mutual care and respect amongst an inner circle. Unlike ‘friendship relationships’, the mutual care is not person-specific. Rather, the mutual care extends equally to every member of the team. This is fertile ground for high levels of respect and trust between team members.

The environment described here is that of Psychological Safety which consistently emerges in research as a key foundation of high-performance teams. The heartfelt voice is the essential foundation of great leadership. I can think of no better reason to put aside oversimplified leadership models and inquire more deeply into great leadership.  

Graeme Findlay is an Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School.  He consults to industry as an executive coach and change management advisor.  Prior to specializing in leadership development, Findlay held executive management roles and was accountable for delivering operational transformations and performance turnarounds on world-scale mega-projects.  His passion for high performance teams led to academic research at Oxford University and HEC Paris.  Findlay holds a Masters degree in Consulting and Coaching for Change. For more information, please visit www.graemefindlay.com

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