Leadership 101: Investment in relationships

The key to great leadership is a relentless investment in your people – in relationships.

Between you and your direct reports. Between everyone.

There’s no short-cut. It takes time. It requires a huge commitment every day and the work is never finished. Great relationships need to be nurtured and maintained. They can also be destroyed very quickly.

And no 2 relationships are the same. It takes high levels of personal care and high levels of EQ to understand the different needs of everyone in your team.

But there’s no use railing against this. “I’m too busy. When will I find the time?” It’s your job – and it’s right at the crux of it. Embrace it.

And as a leader, you have to work twice as hard to build trust. There’s already a high level of suspicion towards you courtesy of your position. Kim Scott, former CEO coach at Dropbox says “to some degree, the minute you assume the role of boss you’ll be fighting preconceptions.”

But the return on this investment is huge. Get it right – create a culture where people listen and speak to each other openly, honestly and freely every day – and you’ll save yourself an awful lot of time in the long run.

Teams that listen and speak to each other perform far better.

There are fewer blind spots, more transparency. There’s more feedback and feed-forward. People push, challenge and support each other, knowing that it’s coming FROM a place of great care and all FOR the common good. 

Investment in relationships leads to teams that are agile, innovative, fail fast, learn, adapt quickly and move on. These are great environments to work in. So how do we take the lead?

Creating this culture: the mechanics

Have this framework visible wherever you can.

If you haven’t had the chance, take a look at our post on “Feedback: Without it we can’t grow.” 

In it, we touch on Kim Scott’s theory of “Radical Candor” outlined above and we re-frame the perception of feedback. It’s very positive!

The culture that you must take the lead in creating is one where people care deeply for each other and challenge directly. This is “Radical Candor.” As I mentioned above, this is an exciting, fast paced environment to be part of.

But it doesn’t come overnight.

Care Personally – you can’t fake it

To move up the care personally axis, you have to really want to. You can’t fake it. People will see through that. Like any genuine relationship in life, trust takes time to build. You have to be truly invested otherwise it doesn’t work.

As the boss, it’s doubly important because people traditionally want to hate on the person in charge and talk about you behind your back. And they will if they don’t feel like you care about them.

Factor in relationship building as part of your job. Allocate time to it. Give yourself space to listen and speak to people. If it means actually blocking it into the diary, so be it.  Address it all of the time. And no, the odd one-to-one or social event outside of work won’t cut it. The key is not to cram your diary so full with stuff that you don’t have time for your people. Remember, people and relationships ARE your job;  they don’t get in the way of you doing your job.

Earn the right to be direct

Truly valuing the relationships that you build at work and caring for your people gives you the right to challenge directly. And actually, when there’s so much trust built up between you and them, you don’t have to labour over it.

A piece of feedback can be given clearly, concisely and immediately in a matter of moments. It will also be received in good spirit because that person can trust that it’s coming from a good place. Put simply, they can trust that you actually care about them.

The obnoxious boss

A common mistake is to think that all of this people caring and relationship building is a molly coddling waste of time. “Well I’m the boss, and sometimes I just need to give a simple, direct instruction without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings.”

You can do this, but without having taken time to build the relationship and show that you care, it just comes across as obnoxious aggression. 

And it’s actually quite lazy. You haven’t put in the work. You haven’t earned it. Maybe the person will take the feedback or instruction and follow up on it because you’re the boss and they have to. But isn’t if far more powerful if they actually want to understand and take on the feedback because they want to be better and buy into the same common objectives?

Now that’s a rather more inspiring environment to be part of.

The detached, “put it off” boss

On the other end of the spectrum, if you haven’t taken the time to invest in your relationships and know your team, you might waste far too long deliberating over how to give some difficult feedback to a direct report. 

You actually do care about hurting the person’s feelings. And because you haven’t built enough trust with them, having a quick word doesn’t feel like an option. 

If you never listen or speak to your team, it doesn’t feel natural or organic.  Conversations are put off because they’re deemed difficult. Maybe you wait for that one-to-one and rehearse what you’re going to say. Perhaps when the one-to-one comes along, it no longer seems important, so you leave it. This is classic ruinous empathy. But a culture like this is stodgy. It can feel like you’re moving through treacle and it slows progress down.


So what can you do?

The best way to kick-start this culture – at The Speakers’ Gym we call it “Speak, Listen: Act” – is to live it yourself. Start with you.

Here are a few quick wins to affect right away:

  1. Embrace relationship-building as part of your job
  2. Have the Radical Candor framework visible wherever possible at work
  3. Factor in time in your diary every day to listen and speak to your people
  4. Start with you and Invite criticism from your team by establishing a regular process where it can happen
  5. Once you’ve truly clarified and understood the criticism, act on it.

Taking time to invest in relationships, show up and show that you care every single day is not a diversion from the work.

There’s no getting away from it, it’s a huge time rich commitment, but eventually it will result in the creation of a culture that allows you to act far quicker. Now that’s exciting.

Speak, listen: Act. Simple!

By Chris Wickenden, 2nd July, 2020,

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