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Why Leadership is All About Relationships
Emotional Intelligence Happier Staff
Justin Coulson

Why Leadership is All About Relationships

A true story for you this week:

“Paul* wants to talk to you. Can you see him now?”

My manager’s executive assistant was not really asking me about my availability. The boss wanted to see me. I knew why.

My performance was on the slide. I was demotivated. I was struggling. It wasn’t just that I had plateaued. I had gone backwards. I knew this would be a challenging conversation.

I was a 24 year-old kid, married for 18 months and trying to make a life and career for myself. We were expecting our first baby and we were stressed, tired, and entirely confused. My wife and I lived 7 hours from her parents and a further 12 hours from mine. We were far from family, had very few real friendships, and we felt like we were doing it all on our own. This was what we had wanted, but it was harder than we thought it would be. The distance combined with the stress of a soon-to-expand family was impacting on my work performance.

I entered the room and, at Paul’s invitation, tentatively took my seat.

Paul was a straight talker. He got straight to the point.

“Justin; we’ve noticed that things aren’t good. Your performance is well below what we are used to, and what we expect. You’re struggling.”

I braced myself as he paused. My eyes were downcast. I was listening intently, waiting for the criticism, the explanation of the written warning, the ‘performance management system’ that would be introduced.

Paul remained silent.

I waited a few seconds before slowly lifting my eyes to meet his. Then I realised: this was not going to be a lecture. He was telling me what he had seen. Now he was waiting to see if he was right or not.

“Yes. I am.” I agreed with Paul and waited. I didn’t quite know how to respond.

After a few moments, Paul asked me a question that has stayed with me for nearly 20 years.

“Justin, what can we do to help?”

How to respond

When dealing with staff challenges (or indeed challenges with anyone with whom we interact), there are three different ways that we can respond to them. We can turn against them, turn away from them, or turn towards them.

1. Turning Against
When we turn against an employee or colleague, we become annoyed, angry, and disapproving. Our approach is punitive and critical. We give written warnings, threaten dismissal, or undermine and find ways to diminish the person. This is a fault-finding approach to the challenge that the person presents. We see them as an enemy.

2. Turning Away
When a person is challenging us and we turn away, we ignore them. Our response to the challenge may either be the dismissive, “it’s not my problem” response (almost like we’re saying “too bad, so sad”). Or it might be the gentle and kind, but still dismissive “you’ll be ok” response. Either response is indicative of turning away, and ultimately tells the person we are not really interested.

Both turning against and turning away leave us seeing the other person as a problem rather than a person. We do not see them, their experience, or their challenge as particularly “real”, except to the extent that it bothers us and causes us difficulty.

3. Turning Towards
The alternative response is to turn towards another person. When we do this, we see them as a real person and we respond to them accordingly. We see them as a human who is struggling with their hopes and dreams and feelings. We recognise that they are doing the best they can – or that they would if their needs were being met. We see them as “real”.

It’s all about relationships

When we are working with colleagues, employees, clients, or even family members, we are often interested in achieving a specific goal. A leader’s role is to INFLUENCE others in the direction of that goal.

Influence relies on one of two things: power or trust.

A leader is imbued with power by virtue of his or her position in the organisation. People will respond to power. But when power is the go-to strategy (via turning against or turning away), it actually diminishes the leader in the eyes of those on the receiving end of the power assertion. When we turn against others or we turn away from others, we undermine their trust in us, and their trust in the relationship.

When we build trust in our relationships, we increase our influence. We build that trust by turning towards others, seeing them as people and not problems, and responding to them in kind, generous, and helpful ways. Ironically, our “power” and our influence grow by us using them less. Turning towards others helps us get our relationships right with them. People feel cared for. They trust us more. And they are open to our influence.

The day that Paul asked me what he could do to help, I felt valued, validated, and important. I felt part of a team. And I would have done ANYTHING he asked me to do because I knew that he cared. Knowing that meant I trusted him. I felt he would act in my best interests because he saw me as a person rather than as a problem.

That day Paul became influential to me because I trusted him.

In leadership, as in the rest of life, it’s all about relationships.

*Paul Sweeney was my GM at 4RO Rockhampton, and he made me feel like a real human being in a way that no other manager ever did throughout my years prior to self-employment. Thank you Paul.

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About the Author

Justin Coulson

Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia's most trusted parenting experts and authors and holds a PhD in Psychology. He is the founder of Happy Families (a website of parenting resources and advice) as well as the co-host and parenting expert on Channel Nine's Parental Guidance.

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