Only Certain Relationships Are Important (#5)

Relationships are a key part of being human.  In our very nature, we crave to belong or be tied to other human beings.  As leaders, relationships are a very key ingredient to our success with employees, customers, or other stakeholders.  Research has shown that leaders tend to minimize the importance of relationships while employees place a high value on relationships.  When a leader considers all the factors that result in their success, the nature and strength of relationships is one of several.  For most employees, the relationship with the supervisor and coworkers is paramount to job satisfaction and productivity.  According to the 2009 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Employee Satisfaction Survey, 52 percent of employees consider the relationship with their immediate supervisor as a very important aspect of job satisfaction while 42 percent identify relationships with co-workers as critical to job satisfaction (  Conversely, a recent major university survey of leaders found that relationships with employees ranked 26th out of 30 important activities.  Similarly, a survey that I assisted with asked questions of leaders in the southeast about what are the most important leadership characteristics.  Out of rankings of six key characteristics, relationships scored the lowest with only 18 percent of respondents identifying it as an important characteristic (see Figure 1).  Ethics and creativity scored the highest with a rating of critical by more than 50 percent, respectively.

Figure 1: Most Desired Leadership Skills

Figure 1: Most Desired Leadership Skills

What makes a leader place so little emphasis on relationships?  Most leaders concede that their professional growth was aided by professional relationships, but few replicate those relationships with their own employees.  Research has shown that when relationships are lacking between leaders and employees, it is many times due to a lack of making the action a priority, insecurity in helping others grow, or inadequate people skills on the part of the leader.

These reasons take the form of:

  • I don’t have time to have more relationships
  • I only need to know the important people
  • I don’t know what to do

I don’t have time to have more relationships

Most leaders are responsible for greater amounts of work and have fewer resources. Some of this demand to do more with less is a function of the times, but it should not be overlooked that demands for greater productivity has been a fairly consistent during the last 30 years.  Moreover, most leaders are “working managers” and have a full time job as well as have leadership responsibilities to their employees.  When feeling overwhelmed, the tendency is to decide which activities are necessary and which are not as a means of survival.  I worked with a group of managers last year that had been very successful at building relationships with outside stakeholders.  When I asked about what type of relationships they have with their employees, there was nervous laughter.  After a long pause, someone asked if I thought they really had time to build relationships with employees given what needed to be done and what they had collectively accomplished.  Another attendee questioned the wisdom of building internal relationships when external stakeholders were viewed as being “so much more important to the future of their organization.”   The puzzling part of the exchange was what happened to those outside stakeholders once internal stakeholders needed to provide them with high quality services.

I only need to know the important people

As I explored the idea of which relationships are the most important, the same group of leaders talked about “important people” and everyone else or “other people.”  They defined “important people” as those that you serve on a regular basis and consider their feelings and motivations, communicate clearly with, and respond to in a timely manner.  The “other” people are there to serve you and not for you to serve.  If a leader operates with this kind of dichotomy, what happens when relationships are not maintained with the “other people” over time? When employees are asked how they react to a poor relationship with their supervisor they are very clear about the impact: lower morale, decreased productivity, diminished customer service, and higher turnover.  Consequently, poor relationships do have a cost and it can be monumental.

I don’t know what to do

Although it seems counter intuitive, some leaders reach their positions without having a strong understanding of what it takes to actually have successful relationships.  A humorous, yet very realistic depiction of the relationship impaired boss appears in Stanley Bing’s Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up.  Bing describes a boss similar to an elephant in form and behavior:

  • Appear bigger and taller than everyone else
  • Eat a lot each week
  • Hedonistic, even if they are in denial
  • Accustomed to getting what they want
  • Play by their own rules
  • Have short attention spans
  • Clean and fastidious – dress nice and travel well
  • Hate doing nothing unless it is called a meeting
  • Need direction from others

As one would expect, if an elephant practiced his workplace persona with a spouse or friend, then the relationship would not last very long.  Consequently, it is not surprising that workplace relationships tend to be poor and we end up with a basic discrepancy between the desired or accepted personality and what is best to engage productive employees. It is very possible that a leader does not know that he or she is acting like an elephant, embraces their elephant like characteristics, or feels that they have the right to be an elephant based on title or position. Regardless of the reason, the outcome is the same: a poor relationship with employees and reduced potential in the team and organization.  Part of growing as a leader is learning about people, how to communicate, and how best to leverage the interests of all.

We live in an age where relationships are increasingly important.  It is easier to form them than before if we want to simply expand our network, but it is harder to make the time necessary to create meaningful and reciprocal relationships.  Nevertheless, to be a successful leader we have to develop and nurture relationships with our most important resource.

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