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The Heart of Performance: Why Relationships Are Key to Leading in a Crisis

Nigel Girling

By

Nigel Girling

CMgr FCMI FInstLM FRSA

Senior Consultant

Any leader and manager who decided to read some business books or leadership articles could be forgiven for thinking that being effective is all about their technique and their character. They might also conclude that the purpose of their role was to generate maximum output and performance.

As with all such conclusions, there’s an element of truth in it… but it certainly isn’t the whole picture. There tends to be a very big piece missing from the jigsaw presented by a lot of business schools and many commentators or writers:

Relationships. Now there’s a word that can split a room.

Many will see it as a touchy-feely or ‘soft and fluffy’ word that has no place in the cut and thrust of today’s competitive world. Others might view it as an emotional or ‘HR’ term and all about making people feel safe, secure, happy and comfortable.

It’s certainly true, especially after the challenges of pandemic, that we need to be empathetic and human in our approach to leading our people and achieving goals.

However, the concept of relationships goes way beyond just the ‘soft’ stuff.

Relationships between members of a team, between a team and their leader, between one team or function and another – all are crucial to effectiveness and performance. Building and sustaining good, supportive relationships isn’t just ‘nice’, its essential to optimum achievement.

Authenticity is key

The sudden shift to ‘virtual’ during the pandemic took a lot of organisations and people by surprise. Many had little experience of virtual communication or remote collaboration. Some handled the shift very well. Many did not.

One thing that was a common consequence of this was a tendency to be overly transactional in some communications – in truth, that was true for many managers when communicating face to face, long before ‘lockdown’ – and much of the natural camaraderie and interpersonal support that co-located teams tend to provide was diminished too. To achieve optimum performance, we need to bring it back or enhance it through the way we lead and manage.

Relationships is about far more than just being nice to each other or asking about someone’s children or dog before launching into the thing you want them to do or the problem you need them to solve. In my 40 years as a leader I’ve found that people are very astute at discerning whether you care about them or not. They will usually see straight through any artificiality in a forced attempt at ‘being friendly’.

Real, trusting and supportive relationships are what we need. Forged often most successfully in adversity, but also through shared experiences, mutual respect for each other’s abilities and contributions, helping each other, doing great work, trusting in the intentions and integrity of each other (and our leaders) and a strong engagement with the purpose we are working towards, together. That last word is the crux of all this. We need to feel we are helping each other to do something worthwhile, together.

The leader as a team member

Leadership is full of paradoxes. Here’s one: If you want a strong identity and relationship as a leader or manager of a team, you need also to be seen as a member of that team and an integral part of it, not just someone who stands above it like a puppeteer. As with any aspect of leadership, there are paradoxical extremes here that must be avoided. Being part of the team definitely doesn’t mean you need to micro-manage. That might actually be even worse than remaining aloof and disconnected at the other extreme. Both are best avoided.

Being part of the team means that you make a valuable personal contribution to its work. That may be by mentoring or coaching members of the team, by providing the resources they need, by representing their interests to other teams and stakeholders or by removing roadblocks and barriers to optimum performance. It might be by helping the team – or sub-groups of the team – with some of the work they are doing or challenges they are wrestling with, helping them to think it through and reach their own – good – decisions.

Use a “Heat Experience”

Building relationships as a leader and manager needs to be seen, by you and others, as a key part of your role and your impact. It needs to be carefully considered and your efforts to do it must be appropriate to the context and to the various individuals concerned. Slapping an introvert on the back or asking someone who hardly knows you some personal questions can do more harm than good.

Often a good approach is to work together on some significant and meaningful activity or project that is core to your true purpose as a team or organisation. Allowing everyone to contribute, playing to their strengths, then recognising the value of each contribution helps everyone to see the value they bring to the whole. It helps them learn to trust – and feel able to rely on each other and on you.

This growth perhaps comes most effectively and rapidly as a result of a ‘heat experience’ – an idea explored eloquently by Chris Watz at the Center for Creative Leadership.

A heat experience is a challenging situation, activity or project that really tests the mettle of the team and you, putting you all under significant pressure in a context where success is important and failure is a real possibility. Dealing with such a challenge and then really reflecting on what you have learned can be hugely insightful. Even relative failure can be very significant in building relationships, as long as the results are not catastrophic. The best teams and leaders have often learned to fail fast, testing out ideas and approaches that they know may not work, but viewing it as a learning experience and an experiment that will enable them to quickly find better answers, together. There’s that word again.

Relationships are the heart of performance. They enable leaders and managers to have high expectations, trust and confidence in their people and to know that the team can rely on each either to go through even the most challenging situations, to deliver great work and results.

Maybe not so soft and fluffy after all.

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