A Fortune 500 company in the financial services sector recently hired Robert, a senior executive from a competitor, with the deliberate intention of appointing him the successor to a longstanding and successful CEO. Robert had been the number two in his old business and was widely respected in the sector for being a shrewd and technically savvy operator. This was his big chance to step up. His role was to run a major part of the business over a two-year period to learn the ropes, so that he would be ready to step into the existing CEO’s shoes at the end of that period. Analysts, investors and commentators were informed of the plan, and the organisation lined up behind the CEO and his new hire to make it happen.
As the two-year deadline approached, staff and commentators alike were astounded to learn that Robert had resigned to move into another operational role with a competitor. The CEO was embarrassed to have lost his successor. Analysts marked the business down and the stock price dipped. What went wrong?
We had the opportunity to talk with a number of senior executives who were working in the business over the two-year period and their observations are telling.
Robert moved into his office on the C-suite-level of a tower block in Canary Wharf in London’s dockland development. He put in place an infrastructure of processes, reports and regular meetings in order to manage his part of the business. He published his vision for the future of the business and defined the values it would stand for. He had meetings with customers and analysts. He was diligent, efficient and business-like, turning up for work early every morning and working late into the evening. But within a few months, a key member of his team left to join a competitor, and then another and a third found a transfer into another part of the business. Performance dipped and several other key individuals left or made it clear internally they were looking to move. What was happening?
This is what some executives from the business told us:
“We couldn’t work for him. It was just too hard. You never knew where you were with him. One day he would be charming and warm; the next, he would cut you off at the knees in a meeting. He never left his office or walked round the business to talk to people. It was impossible to build a relationship with him. We never once had discussions about our development or personal goals. It was all transactional – just about the business and the performance targets. It just stopped being any fun. There’s only so long that you can take this. The best people in his team simply walked. Why would you put yourself through that when you don’t have to?
In the end the CEO realised Robert had zero credibility as his successor, and they agreed he would resign and they would manage it as an amicable departure, but no one was really under any illusion as to what had actually happened.”
In so many organisations today, leaders seem to have forgotten (or never learned) the power and importance of being simply human – of building personal, trusting relationships with their colleagues, of listening to others with care and humanity, of making things happen through deep emotional engagement with the people around them.
How is leadership changing?
As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, we believe there is now compelling evidence that we also need to enter a new era of leadership where the requirement for leaders to build and maintain genuinely trusting relationships at all levels takes centre stage.
Hold on a moment. Haven’t relationships always been at the heart of effective leadership? Yes, they have in the sense that the best leaders have known this instinctively.
However, our observation is that in most organisations today, and for many leaders, relationship-building is still seen as an optional extra – a ‘nice to have’ feature rather than an essential component of effective leadership performance. Why do we say this? Because it’s only in the last decade that we have had clear evidence that people’s engagement at work correlates directly with the quality of the relationship they have with their line manager – and that there is a clear link between people’s engagement and the performance of their organisation.
Thanks to research projects undertaken by the likes of Google and Harvard Business School, we have, over recent years, started talking about the importance of psychological safety at work and how this impacts engagement and team performance. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson
defines psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking… It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.”
Google’s recent two-year study on team performance
revealed that the highest-performing teams have one thing in common: psychological safety. And this basically comes down to two things: communication and empathy. Team members feeling they can speak up as much as they need to, are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions.
As business becomes increasingly global and complex, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based. A study published in the Harvard Business Review in 2016
found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 per cent or more” over the last two decades.
And as this evidence has emerged, so some organisations have started to focus on the quality of leaders’ relationships with their people as a critical factor in organisational performance. And some have even gone further, setting explicit expectations of leaders that building and sustaining trusting relationships is a key part of their role, and showing them how to do it. And we’ve been fortunate enough to have witnessed this at first-hand and partnered with some of these organisations to develop a new approach that makes it a reality.
But still, in many organisations the idea that a leader can and should be working proactively to build trusting relationships with members of his or her team as a central, even fundamental, part of the job, is either off their radar or actively rejected. Many organisations still promote a very different approach where leaders are expected to be visionary, decisive, compelling individuals who achieve results through drive and force of personality. Whether they have trusting relationships with their people is practically irrelevant. In some cases they will, in other cases they won’t. Whether they do or not has little to do with what is expected of them as leaders. Further evidence for this view exists in the competency frameworks and leadership curriculum in many organisations where the quality of leaders’ relationships with their people is either absent or hardly features.
Indeed, a school of thought still exists that leaders should not get ‘too close’ to their people, for fear of undermining their authority. We have even heard the outdated view that effective leaders “keep people on their toes by instilling a bit of fear and uncertainty”. In today’s world of work, where intellectual capital is key and where you need people to bring their intelligence, creativity, passion and commitment to their work, such an approach is doomed to failure. Indeed, we argue this is a deeply unhelpful view of what effective leadership looks like.
Nowadays, people’s expectations of how they will be treated, and how they will be talked to, have changed profoundly. In his book Never Mind the Bosses: Hastening the Death of Deference for Business Success
Robin Ryde argues:
“The way we talk to one another in organisations is a critical differentiator of success ... Managers and leaders cast long shadows, and they introduce patterns of discourse that give permission for others to adopt the same habits ... It is through an adult-to-adult discourse that we might properly and appropriately confront the issues that need to be addressed in business so we can avoid the negative and divisive consequences of allowing issues to fester and blame to grow. The quality of conversation we engage in could not be more important in the modern age.”
We want to convince you that working to build trusting relationships is your first and most profound duty as a leader – whether you are a people manager or not. When you have trusting relationships with the people in your team or with your colleagues in general, anything is possible; when trust is absent, little of long-term, sustainable value can be achieved.
We will also argue that it is possible to work at, practise and become better at building effective, trusting relationships by rediscovering a fundamental truth – the power of honest, authentic, two-way human conversations at work. We will argue that throughout human history people have talked to each other – using gesture and touch, smiles and frowns, myths and stories – to build collaboration and trust and get things done. Somehow in today’s world of technology, email, social media, remote working and globalisation we have forgotten this simple truth: as human beings, relationships matter deeply to us. We can’t function effectively without them and that applies just as much at work as it does at home. And the quality of the relationship you have with your colleagues at work is crucial to your performance and willingness to go the extra mile – whether you sit in the same oﬃce as them or in a different country.
Leadership and relationships
So in our work over the past decade we have seen two new ideas emerge that taken together will have a profound effect on what passes for excellence in leadership. The first concerns what effective leaders do, the second why and how they do it.
First, there is overwhelming evidence from academic research, government investigation and from the professionals working in the field, that when employees have high levels of engagement this has a significant, measurable and transformational impact on organisational performance. The research also shows that it is the quality of the relationship people feel they have with their immediate leader or manager that is the primary driver of these feelings of engagement. So relationships really matter. They are not an optional take it or leave it factor. They are a fundamental enabler of your and your organisation’s ability to attract, keep and get the very best out of your people.
Leadership is relationship. No relationship – no leadership. Leadership is about the trust, stewardship, concern, understanding and the humanity you demonstrate towards those whom you lead, and the safe environment you create for them to flourish and grow in. If you can build such relationships and create a climate where they can speak their mind and stick their neck out without fear of having it cut off, you will earn their loyalty, trust and lasting commitment.
As global research organisation Gallup says: “How employees feel about their job starts and ends with their direct supervisor. If employees feel, among other things, that their supervisor takes a real interest in their development, or offers frequent praise and recognition, they are very likely to be engaged. If companies hire the right people to lead and actively encourage the engagement of their workforces, economic dominance will be sure to follow.”
And it’s not just research into employee engagement which emphasises the importance of building relationships. The latest evidence from the growing field of neuroscience also shows why the type of conversations you have with others and how you approach them has a fundamental effect on their behaviour and work performance.
Second, how do effective leaders build trusting relationships? We now know that effective leaders use authentic, two-way human conversations to build trusting, productive relationships with team members and others around them. Building these conversations into your daily life at work (and beyond) will not only make you a more effective and productive leader but will also give you a deep sense of fulfilment and enhanced quality of life. No longer is it the case that the quality of the relationships you have at work is something random or mysterious. There is growing evidence that, whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, a technical expert or a generalist, a sales executive or an accountant, you can deepen your relationships by consciously building these key conversations into every day of your working life.
And the real beauty of this finding is that you don’t have to be slick, word perfect, or a great conversationalist for this to work. You just have to be authentic – to enter each conversation with the genuine intention of more deeply understanding your colleague, showing care and stewardship, and providing support and encouragement.
What are the key conversations effective leaders use?
Through our work with thousands of leaders in hundreds of organisations around the world, we have identified the five critical conversations that the most effective leaders use to build and sustain trusting relationships. These are:
1. Establishing a trusting relationship – a conversation with a team member to share a deep, mutual understanding of your respective drivers, preferences, motivators and demotivators for high performance at work, and to understand what makes each other tick
2. Agreeing mutual expectations – a conversation about not only what you are both trying to achieve at work, but also why, and the expectations you can have to support each other in achieving these outcomes
3. Showing genuine appreciation – a conversation to help a team member focus on where they are being successful, to jointly understand the reasons for their success, to say how much you appreciate their contribution and find further ways in which they can deploy their skills and talents to benefit both themselves and the organisation
4. Challenging unhelpful behaviour – a conversation to agree a new and more effective set of behaviours where what a team member or colleague is saying or doing is getting in ...