Engaging The Hearts And Minds Of Employees

Jan 13, 2017 1 Min Read

Ways to build a great relationship with your team

One of the primary ingredients of good leadership is being able to build great relationships. Teams are more productive and sustainable when members enjoy being in the company of their peers or leader.

As the 2014 Globoforce Workforce Moodtracker Survey shows, employees with close friends are more likely to love the company they are working at. They are also twice as likely as those without friends to trust the company’s leadership. The survey also found that employees who have built strong bonds at work are more engaged and feel a greater sense of pride in the work they do.

Nevertheless, the importance of sustaining positive relationships will often be overlooked if one adopts a traditional top-down, factory-like management philosophy.

Today, views about leadership have shifted as modern businesses are thriving on flatter organisational structures, self-managing teams and empowerment of employees. As psychologist Dr Edwin P. Hollander puts it, today’s leadership is focused on “doing things with people, rather than to people”.

As a result, an increasing number of leaders are placing greater priority to building strong bonds within the team. Here are several relationship-building strategies leaders can use to improve their team synergy.

Adding a dose of fun

One way of building a great relationship with staff is by adding a dose of fun to the workplace. The old adage “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is not a saying to be ignored if you want to boost productivity. Positive emotions such as happiness and excitement are important for countering negative ones like stress, fear and hopelessness. More importantly, human emotions are infectious. A leader’s foul mood can quickly spread throughout the entire team, affecting everyone’s productivity.

Neuroscience has revealed that humans have a set of “mirror neurons” neurons that allow us to detect other people’s emotions and empathise with them. The leader’s emotions are paramount because followers will inadvertently mirror the leader’s feelings, whether positive or negative. The leader sets the tone for how the team should feel about issues, according to psychologist and proponent of emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman. As studies have shown, followers tend to catch negative moods like a flu from their leader, even if such emotions are very subtly expressed.

An experiment by Marie Dasborough demonstrated that when people are given positive feedback by an assessor who is exhibiting negative body language (such as frowning), they tend to feel even worse than those who received negative feedback with a smile.

Imagine having two equally demanding and high-performing leaders Serious Sam and Cheerful Charlie. Serious Sam is socially disengaged, focuses solely on work and creates a tense situation among the teammates, while Cheerful Charlie is amusing, charming, open to criticism and approachable. The best talents will soon grow weary and burnt out working with Sam, hence quitting the department. Meanwhile, Cheerful Charlie, the more socially competent leader, will have staff that will stick with the department through challenging times, and go the extra mile because their leader has made the struggle worth it.

An excellent example of this philosophy can be found in Southwest Airlines under its former chief executive officer (CEO) Herb Kelleher. Kelleher infused fun and entertainment into his company. He treated his followers like close friends, and created a fun environment where people can joke, throw parties and be themselves. He believed that being positive can help reduce stress among his employees and help them stay motivated. This positive energy is then transferred to the customers, leading to one of the best customer service experiences in the industry.

Kelleher also cared for his employees’ welfare. His employees often shared stories of how he helped them realise their personal dreams, from fulfilling childhood wishes to become a pilot, to donating money to treat a loved one’s terminal cancer.

Herb Kelleher’s management style, which was unorthodox for its time, became crucial in realising his company’s growth from a small regional airline to the fifth largest in the United States. For him, having fun was serious business.

Appreciating others

As social beings, humans are wired to feel good when what we do is seen to be valued by others. A great part of relationship-building stems from appreciation. According to a Gallup poll, feeling unappreciated is one of the top reasons why employees leave their jobs.

Although managers tend to think of money when the word “recognition” is brought up, it is much more than that. Out of the various types of recognition strategies, a 2009 McKinsey Quarterly survey showed that money was not the most effective motivator. The primary motivator, the study found, was praise.

A successful leader has a healthy relationship with the team and consistently shows appreciation for what they have contributed to the team. An emotionally intelligent leader also builds a culture of appreciation through peer-to-peer recognition activities, where followers show appreciation for what their coworkers have done and share recognition stories with one another.

Many companies have now figured out creative ways to recognise the contribution of team members.

Cloud 9 Living, a gift company, has a “G” Book, where anyone can write down their appreciation for a teammate’s accomplishments. The “G” Book would then be read aloud in weekly meetings.

Companies like Yankee Candle and Staten Island University Hospital hold recognition awards for those who have gone the extra mile to help their team.

Related post: How Do You Build Relationships At Work?

Being responsive

A leader who is savvy in building relationships knows that being responsive is a must-have trait. Good communication is both talking and listening. Responsiveness, otherwise known as “being a good listener”, is being attentive to other people’s input, actively solving problems that are brought up and addressing concerns raised by others.

The problem of communication in organisations is a long-standing one. In the 1980s, management consultant Sidney Yoshida found that 100% of front-line problems are known only to front-line workers, 74% of these problems are known by supervisors, 9% by middle management and only a measly 4% by top managers. Most problems remain unknown or uncommunicated to top decision-makers, a phenomenon Yoshida termed “The Iceberg of Ignorance”.

Companies today have learnt that opening up communication channels can have a sustainable positive impact. A digital media company based in Kuala Lumpur has been recognised internationally for its transparency and openness to feedback. The company has a monthly activity called “In Your Face”. The way it works is that the team leader takes the team out for a meal and asks each individual to ponder on three things:

1. what we should keep;
2. what we should start doing; and
3. what we should stop doing.

Members of the team then present their ideas about things they have done right, things that are counterproductive, as well as improvements that they can make to increase productivity or better deal with problems they face. These ideas are then acted upon and the team reconvenes to discuss their effectiveness. By promoting conversation, teams have arrived at numerous breakthrough solutions and have brought issues to the attention of leaders before they go out of hand.


Sharing responsibility

When one is in charge all the time, there is often a feeling that things will fall apart if others are allowed to take the reins. One company was forced to move away from this traditional line of thinking when an economic recession hit in the 90s. That company was Semco. Semco is a Brazilian company that defied the odds when most companies in the nation were going bankrupt during the economic downturn.

The secret to its success lies in the management’s controversial decision to adopt a democratic leadership style. Employees can vote on major business decisions, including their salaries and work hours. Semco employees assented to taking a wage cut and voted on who to lay off in order to improve the company’s profitability amidst tough times.

Moving from a traditional authoritarian leadership style to a democratic one was tough in the beginning as employees had to weigh the costs and benefits of each decision. However, employees soon became more attached to the company’s welfare and took greater ownership of its success. They were not just here from nine-to-five to slog through their work. They had a stake in the company’s future. They wanted to take the company forward.

Although allowing employees to vote on their salaries may seem drastic to many, promoting a democratic form of leadership can go miles in improving the leader-follower relationship.

In a classic study, psychologist Kurt Lewin assigned people to three groups, each having a leader with a particular leadership style. In the Authoritarian group, the leader has absolute say over what jobs each team member must perform and what rewards they received. The second group had the Laissez-faire leadership style, where the leader gives complete freedom to the team members to decide everything. In the final group, the leader practiced a Democratic leadership style, a leadership that places high importance on allowing followers to have a say in what they want to do, and group decisions are based on consensus from members.

The Democratic group performed best with members feeling stronger attachment to the group, and perceiving that they have a stake in the group’s success. In the Authoritarian group, members felt resentful as they were deprived of self-direction. The Laissez-faire group suffered from poor cohesion and poor engagement.

In a nutshell

Sometimes the rush to the top, the pressures of a deadline, or the concern for quarterly bottom-lines can make leaders forget that people are ruled by their hearts, as well as by their minds. Investing time in building strong relationships can often determine if followers will be passionate towards your cause, or apathetic and looking for a way out.

Jack Chua works as a researcher in the field of psychometrics. He is also a regular Leaderonomics writer on leadership topics. Share your thoughts with him at editor@leaderonomics.com

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 


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