Just how much do you put building relationships with employees at the forefront?
Sure, you may know their names and job titles, but do you know who has an upcoming birthday? Who has a spouse or children, and what are their names? If that information sounds insignificant, then how about their work styles? Who’s a creative thinker, and who has a preference for checklists and procedure?
You’re a leader; you want and need your people to follow you. You want them to talk to you and be happy working with you. But there’s often a barrier, something that separates employees and managers and prevents people from being fully motivated at work.
The answer you’ve been searching for is a simple one: relationships. By building work relationships, you can go beyond plain management, and improve employee motivation.
Personal bonding may not be part of your job description, but it’s certainly an important factor in leadership—and it starts with you.
Building relationships with employees: Better to be loved than feared
The first factor in team relationships is how your employees perceive you. Your initial instincts as a leader may be to establish dominance; you’re in charge and you need to show it. Well, shove down that instinctual alpha brain! As it turns out, strength isn’t number one on the brain’s judgment checklist.
Social psychologist Alex Todorov and his colleagues at Princeton study how our brains make initial judgments. According to their publications, subjects notice a person’s kindness before any sort of power hierarchy.
If anything, establishing yourself as a threatening figure could actually harm your image. Making employees feel unsafe or insecure is extremely detrimental to your company’s culture and employee productivity as a whole (though luckily, this damage can be reversible).
As a leader, you want to be strong—but that doesn’t equate to domination. Instead, you should focus on providing the strength to support other team members when the going gets rough. You don’t have to be viewed as powerful, but as a trustworthy leader they can all rely on.
When you’re building relationships, you need to think beyond the potential benefits you can reap. Treat your employees as respectfully as you’d like them to treat you. That means requesting rather than demanding, and thinking of them as people, not just as staff.
With an established sense of respect, you can build trust. Socialize, be interested in their work, and offer genuine assistance. Make sure they know how valued they are as individuals—but take care to never cross the line into condescension!
Trust and respect are a vital foundation for further relationship building. If you’re hoping to learn more about your employees, start with being open yourself. From there, it’s all a matter of communication.
Relationships are all about communicating
A good leader understands the importance of effective communication. We’ve explained how to improve company culture through employee engagement, and the point still remains relevant. Engagement breeds a feel-good sense of investment and inclusion—and for this particular purpose, it also opens up a platform for conversations on a more personal level.
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to engage. Try to regularly initiate honest, productive dialogue about both work and life. Ask questions—real questions, beyond the scripted “How’s it going?” We guarantee that the answer will almost always be—“I’m fine, how are you?”, and that’s not going to get you anywhere.
Offer constructive feedback, and be receptive to it yourself. Everyone appreciates a superior who’s open to criticism! Remain transparent regarding administrative decisions, share your reasoning, and allow input from others;
you never know who might have the next creative idea.
If problems arise, negotiate and mediate. Once you intuitively understand your employees and their relationships around the office, you’ll have an easier time spotting any heavy air in the work environment. Understand the dynamics, and know the individuals that make them.
Too much of a good thing
Getting to know your team is vital, but there’s always the risk of taking it too far. There’s a certain event horizon on the friendliness charts—if you’ve become more of a pal than a boss, employees can lose the pressure to repay your goodwill.
In the ideal situation, admin-employee relationships are a reciprocal cycle. Any time you do something such as showing your appreciation or offering help, you’re racking up social capital with the recipient. Best case scenario, they pay it back immediately with new-found motivation.
If that pressure is taken off, however, people become more willing to hold on to that debt. This is supported by a field study from Harvard Business Review—many employees who had stronger relationships with their managers felt less obligated to “return the favor”—furthermore, they took advantage of their good rapport to focus less on their work in the short term.
You have to find that happy medium—keep it friendly, but never forget your position. Be tough, but fair, and always hold employees accountable for their actions (or lack thereof).
Playing the long game
Building real relationships with your top talent is a long-term commitment that will always be worth it. By maintaining personal connections around the office, you’re reinforcing that no one there is just some cog in the machine; everyone is personally appreciated for all of their hard work. You’re creating intrinsic motivation to work hard. Furthermore, knowing your employees’ goals, work styles, and personalities can influence how you manage them, allowing for a more individualized and effective approach.