Relational leadership: what is it and how can it help your workplace?

Google a strict definition of ‘relational leadership’ and you’ll find five components: inclusion, empowerment, purposefulness, ethical behaviours, and process orientation. But in isolation, that definition sounds like empty buzzwords, met with another eye-roll from business leaders.

But relational leadership is widely credited as George H. W. Bush’s successful leadership style as President between 1989 and 1993. And anecdotally, those leaders who master relational leadership have more productive workforces, happier employees, and more consistent profit margins. 

The essence of relational leadership is using empathy and understanding to empower your team. You help people find a sense of importance and purpose in what they’re doing. Every member of your team feels included in the project and motivated to achieve the outcome.

How to develop relational leadership

There’s no sugar-coating the pill. Relational leadership is hard. It requires a level of self-awareness from leaders, and the time, effort and patience to get to know your team.

Taking a genuine interest in your team members is the first step in making them feel included and empowered (there are those buzzwords that we’re unpicking). Start with finding out what their personal goals are and what their career goals are. Then see if you can start to understand their personality type and the ways in which they like to work.

How do they like to be communicated with? Do they need 30 minutes to process verbal instructions before coming back with questions? Do they prefer to talk through a problem or sit and think about it alone for a while?

You might find it helpful to do some personality profile testing. This can be quite illuminating for team leaders to understand the strengths and preferences of your team members, and help them feel confident and understood in the work environment. 

You’ll also start to understand what each team member needs from you, as a leader. Do they need regular affirmation and encouragement? Does close supervision make them feel supported or encroached upon? Do they prefer a level of autonomy, or frequent check-ins and reassurance? 

Practical ways to demonstrate relational leadership

Relational leadership starts with the leader’s actions, attitude and behaviours. That means being authentic. 

Admit your mistakes. If you made a bad decision, or you’d do things differently in the future, communicate that with your team. It’s not a sign of weakness, but instead builds trust and transparency. You empower the rest of the team to own up to mistakes and avoid the toxic culture of trying to cover up mistakes, which then spiral into bigger issues and cause more stress and anxiety.

Be honest about your motives. If reaching the goal means you make more profit for the business – tell your team that! People like working in a successful workplace, and it helps them to feel secure and nurture their ambitions.

Involve colleagues in the decision-making process. Listen to each other and respect other ideas. Your team will feel more included in the project, and feel a sense of ownership in their work, when they’ve been allowed to contribute to decisions.

Include praise in your feedback. Busy leaders often red-line a document, or change a piece of work, without taking the time to give praise. That results in demoralised, demotivated colleagues. Don’t forget to add a few positive comments like: “love this section” or “this is clever” or “like what you did here.” It makes all the difference to that person’s confidence and morale.

Thank your team.  Make sure the team feels appreciated for their efforts when you reach the end of the project. Take them out for lunch or drinks. Organise a fun social event. Or give them a financial bonus. People feel more motivated when they know they are appreciated. 

How this leadership style improves your workplace

By practising relational leadership, you get the best out of your employees. Your team will be happier, more motivated, more productive, and more likely to stay with you for the long term. 

When you create a culture of prioritising relationships and healthy interactions, you’ll help to look after the mental health of your team, and reduce sickness and absences related to stress and anxiety.

One thing that shouldn’t be undermined or overlooked is that relational leadership makes you likeable. And when you’re likeable, people won’t want to disappoint you. They work harder for you and feel empowered to reach the team goals. 

And ultimately that makes your business more successful. Happy people are productive people. And aligned, productive people meet targets, achieve objectives and exceed expectations.

If you’d like practical help to develop a culture of relational leadership in your workplace, please give me a call. I will provide you with a unique bespoke solution that will help you realise what you’re aiming to achieve.