Affiliative Leadership – What is it? Pros/Cons? Examples?


An affiliative leader’s mantra is simple – “Let harmony reign!” Affiliative leaders adopt a people-first approach and attempt to create and sustain a peaceful work environment. I have seen some good affiliative leaders in my leadership career, just like I have seen some who have completely lacked those skills. On the surface, the affiliative leadership style may seem ideal since it focuses on a team’s emotional needs. However, there are some challenges associated with making this modern leadership style work effectively. Let us start with quick and brief explanation of the concept.

What is affiliative leadership?
Affiliative leadership is completely focused on the people and relationships in an organization. The leaders primary task is to ensure harmony and friendship in the workplace. This leads to happy employees but can at the same time lead to poor performance.

What is Affiliative Leadership?

The process of understanding affiliative leadership begins by first understanding what affiliative means. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines affiliative as “relating to the formation of social and emotional bonds with others or to the desire to create such bonds.” Therefore, affiliative leadership relates to the formation of social and emotional bonds with team members.

Daniel Goleman is credited with conceptualizing affiliative leadership in 2002.  His research revealed that an affiliative leader focuses on resolving team conflicts so that all team members feel positively connected to each other. Team tensions often prevent organizations from achieving their goals. Affiliative leaders attempt to solve this problem by strengthening relationships and connecting with each team member on an emotional level. Affiliative leaders can be very helpful when a team is in deep crisis or in turmoil in such a way that a new team needs to emerge. Furthermore, when shaping a new team from scratch, affiliative leadership is extra beneficial since it creates trust and a sense of belonging that can weld the team members together in a good way. Here’s a great book on how to build a team on a platform of trust: The Five Dysfunctions of a team.

One needs to be careful with this leadership style though since it can go too far. Most organizations have long term reasons to exist, and those are rarely that the employees shall have as peaceful an existence as possible. A leader that becomes friends with his or her team and an organization that prioritizes harmony above achieving business goal can be a long term performance problem.

The affiliative leadership style is one out of a set of six styles conceptualized by Daniel Goleman. The others are: Commanding/Directive Leadership, Participative/Democratic Leadership, Pacesetting leadership, Authoritative/Visionary Leadership and Coaching Leadership.
I warmly recommend you to read Goleman’s book as soon as possible, it contains some really great knowledge on leadership and emotional intelligence: Here’s a link to it on Amazon: Primal Leadership.

What Are the Elements of Affiliative Leadership?

A strong people focus and a strong moral compass are corner stones for the affiliative leader. Good communication and a high level of flexibility are common elements in organizations with strong affiliative leadership.

1. Strong people focus

People is the number on priority in affiliative leadership. Both the group, the individual and the emotions of the individuals are valued. Strong emotional ties and loyalty between the team members can create opportunities for great performance. A more personal approach is also visible in how rewards and recognition are handed out. Affiliative leaders are much more likely to spend time with their employees to celebrate a job well done together. Such occasions can be team dinners, department luncheons or similar. Either in groups or one on one.

2. A Strong Moral Compass

All leaders are expected to have strong moral values so that unethical behavior is discouraged. However, morals and values form the central focus of the affiliative leader. They aren’t a secondary thought once the company’s objectives have been met. Instead, affiliative leaders model moral behavior and expect those they work with to do the same. This heavy focus on morality also helps them exhibit empathy towards their teams. Empathy that is often lacking in other leadership styles.

Additionally, an affiliative leader is ok with displaying his or her own emotions to a higher extent. After all, the trusting climate and the harmony allows for sharing without judgement to a high degree, and the high focus on morals and values brings a lot of authenticity to the table, allowing for emotional sharing as well.

3. Good Communication

Affiliative leaders use positive communication to improve team morale and increase the chances of success. This doesn’t mean that the leader is a push-over. Instead, the affiliative leader can effectively encourage an employee to rethink his or her behavior through positive communication.
Communication is generally strong in teams or organizations marinated in an affiliative leadership style. Harmony and emotional bonds lead to lots of communication, which increases the spread of ideas and constructive discussion. This can be very beneficial to the organization. (If you need to improve on communication, this course by Brian Tracy might be useful: The Power of Effective Communication.)

4. Flexibility

Thanks to the high level of trust and communication, affiliative leadership normally brings a large amount of flexibility to organizations as well. The climate and harmony require very little in terms of rules and a weaker system structure is enough. This flexibility also means that affiliative teams are more open to change and can handle changing circumstances better than many other teams.

What are the Pros and Cons of Affiliative Leadership?

Like all leadership styles, the affiliative leadership style also comes with pros and cons. Simply being aware of them makes it easier for you to play on the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of affiliative leadership. There is an Infographics overview displaying the advantages and disadvantages of affiliative leadership at the end of this chapter.

Advantages of Affiliative Leadership

The advantages are, as expected, centering on people and their wellbeing.

1. Positively communicated feedback helps boost staff morale.

Affiliative leaders don’t dwell on the shortcomings of a team. Instead, they offer positive, yet constructive, feedback to their direct reports. They also recognize team members for the contributions they make to the team, no matter how small. Read O Great One, a book about praise and recognition written by a CEO for inspiration.

2. Interpersonal conflict is swiftly addressed

Affiliative leaders try very hard to create a harmonious work environment. Therefore, they tend to have a knack for quickly spotting conflict and doing whatever they can to resolve it peacefully. These leaders don’t wait until conflicts become big issues that threaten the team’s success. Instead, they find unique solutions to these emotional conflicts so that productivity can increase.

3. Employees feel like the leader cares about their wellbeing

An employee’s wellbeing is what matters most to an affiliative leader. Need some time to attend your child’s sports event? No problem! Want to be rewarded for effectively completing your routine tasks? The affiliative leader will make that happen. It’s all about making the team feel appreciated and paying attention to their holistic needs.

The positive environment that this creates increases worker productivity. The Harvard Business Review agrees. In an article titled “Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive” authors Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron state that “employees prefer workplace wellbeing to material benefits”. As a contrast, organizations with minimal or no focus on employee wellbeing experience reduced productivity in the long-term, higher healthcare expenditure and low employee engagement. If you want to create a positive environment, using the affiliative leadership style will set you on the right path.

4. Employees experience less stress and higher autonomy

The caring environment where everybody’s emotions are accounted for normally result in less stress. The high emotional focus means people will not be pushed as hard, it is as simple as that. Having a trusting and accepting team also means it is easier to ask for help or assistance in times of high pressure, avoiding stress related problems in the end.
Affiliative leaders do allow employees to work autonomously, although this leader is not as laid-back as a laissez faire leader. Affiliative leaders aren’t overbearing and overly demanding in how they lead. Employees who value working independently would be grateful for a affiliative leadership.

5. Quicker emotional recovery from difficult incidents

A business crisis can take an emotional toll on employees. The encouraging presence of an affiliative leader helps the team better handle the crisis emotionally. Since the team is more able to handle the emotional implications of the incident, they are better able to get back to normal operations quickly so that productivity isn’t severely hampered. This also applies for incidents and problems in the personal lives of the team members since an affiliative team is way more supporting in general than many other types of teams. I have seen this happen numerous times in my career.

6. Teams are tightly-knit

Affiliative leaders do well at building a sense of camaraderie and collaboration. Everyone feels valued and is, therefore, more likely to feel empowered to help the team work together cohesively. An affiliative leader’s team is almost like family. Loyalty and trust are very strong in these teams.

Disadvantages of Affiliative Leadership

The weaknesses of affiliative leadership are concentrated on low performance, losing sight of the organizations purpose and conflict resolution. Minding the wellbeing of the employees can come with a price.

1. Underperformance tends to be overlooked

The spirit of camaraderie and positive feedback can work against an affiliative leader. Employees should feel good and always experience positive energy in the workplace. Therefore, an affiliative leader will avoid creating his or her own conflict with employees by overlooking their underperformance.

Instead, the aim is to find the root cause of the underperformance and correct it on an emotional level. This strategy may not work well in all situations, especially when there are strict deadlines that must be met.
If you find it difficult to bring up difficult topics, consider reading Verbal Judo which has some great tips on how to communicate while avoiding conflict.

2. Overlooked underperformance leads to a negative chain reaction

Employees carefully observe a leader’s actions. If a leader begins to ignore underperformance, the rest of the team may believe that mediocre performance is acceptable. Why put in greater effort? Therefore, productivity decreases despite the highly positive work environment the affiliative leader has worked so hard to create.

3. Avoiding constructive criticism leads to unresolved problems

Positive criticism is great. However, there are times when employees need constructive feedback to help them perform more effectively. An affiliative leader won’t give this type of feedback unless it’s possible to put a positive spin on it. This has the potential to create complex challenges for the organization in the long-term.

4. The organization’s overall goal may be lost

Affiliative leaders focus primarily on building harmonious relationships within the organization. Such a narrow-minded focus inevitably means that the overall needs and goals of the organization are pushed aside. Therefore, affiliative leaders need to be conscious of this and strike a delicate balance between a harmonious workplace and ensuring that organizational goals are met.

5. The leader avoids uncomfortable situations

Affiliative leaders like to feel happy and positive each day they come to work. Any negative energy that threatens this happy place is avoided. Therefore, the leader may try to delegate responsibility, wait for a difficult situation or conflict to disappear, or delay responding for as long as possible before acting. This type of behavior isn’t in the organization’s best interest.

6. Employees develop an unrealistic emotional dependence on the leader

Employees begin to depend on the affiliative leader to resolve all interpersonal matters. Therefore, they don’t develop their own sense of emotional intelligence and fortitude. If the leader leaves the organization, things start to fall apart because of this unrealistic emotional dependence.

Affiliative Leadership Advantages and Disadvantages Infographics. Feel free to use the image as long as you link back to this page.

How Can You Be an Effective Affiliative Leader?

Each leadership style has its place. Especially for the six styles in this set by Daniel Goleman – the whole concept builds on switching styles depending on the circumstances and not let a single style be overly dominant and overshadowing the others. The best leaders know how or focus on learning how to change their leadership styles to suit the present needs of the organization and the people involved in each leadership situation. Most people believe that the affiliative leadership style is best used when there is high stress in an organization or building a new team is required, but it has a place in team building at all team maturity levels. The big difference is how much of it you use versus other styles.

Here are some tips for effectively using this leadership style and reducing any negative side effects of it. Do note that some of these are typical behaviors of other leadership styles, which underlines our previous point of switching styles as appropriate.

Give constructive criticism

It is possible to give positive feedback without ignoring an employee’s shortcomings. How feedback is given matters. It’s important to acknowledge when an employee is underperforming and provide the constructive feedback necessary to get him or her back on track.

Encourage all employees to deal with conflicts in a good way

Conflict resolution shouldn’t rest solely on the affiliative leader’s shoulders. All team members need to be part of resolving conflicts and develop good conflict resolution skills so that the affiliative leader doesn’t have to spend an unreasonable amount of time putting out emotional fires. If all team members try to deal with their conflicts on their own and rarely seek intervention from the leader, the organization will function more efficiently.

Confront all challenges despite how difficult they may seem

All leaders are confronted with difficult challenges. Don’t push the challenges you’re faced with aside. Stay on top of internal and external issues that affect the organization even if they make you uncomfortable. It’s better to confront situations when they arise rather than allow them to fester and grow over time.

Track employee performance and execute appropriate interventions

An underperforming employee shouldn’t be allowed to slip through the cracks. However, you’re not trying to hover over your employees and dictate their every move. A strategy that you can use is monthly performance evaluations to determine whether employees are effectively meeting their targets and providing high quality outputs. Those who aren’t should either be provided with mentorship or the tools and resources they need to improve. They shouldn’t be left to flounder like a fish out of water.

Again, check out Verbal Judo for some great tips on how to handle difficult topics without causing conflict.

How to get more affiliative with your team?

Here are a few rather easy and simple things that you can do to improve on your affiliative skills and get closer to your team members.

1. Remember birthdays

Put all their birthdays in your calendar and when a birthday is up, call them and wish them a happy birthday. This will make people feel that you care about them for sure.

2. Ask people how they are doing

And really, really make sure you are listening to the answer. If something big is going on, remember to follow up and ask them again about the same situation the next time you talk or as appropriate.

3. Start some team meetings with asking people what is new in their life

This does not take long at all. It relaxes the mood before the meeting and it shares the information in the entire team, giving them the opportunity to grow closer together as well.

4. Ask about their families

You can even make notes. It is allowed you know! If you have trouble remembering how many kids people have, then write it down. Bring it up later as in “How is your son and daughter doing?” showing that you recall and know about the kids. Making notes does not make you inauthentic. It simply helps your memory and doing the above will result in you remembering it all by heart after some time. (Here’s info on the apps/devices I use for productivity and note-taking by the way: Productivity tools for Managers and Leaders.

5. Watch the body language of your team members

If you see that people tense up or look beaten down, ask them how they are doing? If you have poor group dynamics as in my example above, the body language will tell for sure. By watching people and their changes in posture and facial expressions, you can spot conflict brewing beneath the surface as well as understand the general mood of people. Following up on someone that is sad with a quick question in a break can mean a lot to them – they will feel seen and that someone cares, which you in fact do, right? (Here’s a bestseller on body language: What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People.)

A leader’s practical experience of Affiliative Leadership

I haven’t met that many affiliative leaders during my career for some reason. The ones I have met, have often been involved in a sales capacity for some reason. This chapter will expand on a few examples of others showing affiliative leadership as well as some occasions I have done this myself.

The affiliative sales leader

I was once working with a Sales VP who had astonishing affiliative capabilities. It felt like he knew everybody. He would immediately remember the names of your family members and other personal items you mentioned in a conversation with him. He was a true people’s person and got substantial loyalty from his team members as a result. A truly amazing skill set which I am far from learning, even though I try.

Being an affiliative leader

During my years as a business leader I have sometimes gotten very close to some team members when they have experienced challenges in their personal lives. This includes the loss of a close family member, divorces and other major personal problems. By supporting these people in their time of difficulty, topics that aren’t normally discussed are brought up. If both parties are comfortable with opening up a bit, it can result in opportunities for people to bond. When I have gotten the chance to be there for a close colleague or a team member, it has normally made us grow closer and the loyalty between us have been cemented long-term.

The inauthentic affiliative leader

This leader is struggling to get closer to the team members and are deliberately working on the affiliative side of leadership. The problem comes when it turns out to be pretended care and affiliation to the people in the team. This will only seem inauthentic and weird, and the leader risks seeming even colder when caught in this type of behavior.
If you need to warm up to your people, then work on it in a deeper and more profound way. Think of them as people, how you care about them and how you really want them the best. Positive reinforcement and intrapersonal communication can be helpful here. Avoid asking how people are doing to fill a check box and then quickly moving on and hardly listening to the answer. People will see through you in a heartbeat.

The opposite of an affiliative team

I have experienced a team with such a toxic culture that speaking your mind could be taken as a declaration of war by some of the others. There were sub cliques forming alliances, people disrespected each other openly and snubbed of relevant questions with sarcasm. This team was led by a highly skilled leader, but sadly, for some reason he failed to see these negative and destructive group dynamics. The team had performance issues, partially due to this situation, and people gradually left the team one by one, either willingly or unwillingly. After a while, the atmosphere shifted, but then more than half of the old team and the leader were gone.

Famous Examples Affiliative Leadership?

It is quite difficult to find any other examples mentioned online besides Joe Torre. On the other hand, that example is very easy to find. We have dug up two more famous examples for you.

Joe Torre – Former Head of the New York Yankees – 1940 to present

Joe Torre’s affiliative leadership style was particularly evident during the 1999 World Series. The players were under a lot of pressure because of the pennant race. He ably addressed their emotional turmoil. He also deliberately specially praised Scott Brosius whose father had died during the season. This helped Scott remain committed to the game although he was mourning his father’s death.

Dalai Lama (Lhamo Thondup)  (1935- present) – Spiritual Leader of Tibet

The Dalai Lama, who is also pointed out as an example of servant leadership is regarded as an affiliative leader. After all, this revered spiritual leader is set on a path of peace and happiness together with his followers.

Warren Buffet (1930 – present) – CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

The famous finance guru Warren Buffet is known for hiring talented financial professionals who can creatively apply his principles to produce returns for their clients. Mr. Buffet doesn’t need to be involved in the day-to-day operations and he trusts his team. The strong focus on the team makes Mr. Buffet an affiliative leader as we see it. Warren Buffet is also considered and example of a Laissez-Faire leader.

Which are the Goleman leadership styles?

The complete set of leadership styles as presented by Daniel Goleman is:

  • Coercive or Directive leadership style
  • Authoritative or Visionary leadership style
  • Affiliative leadership style
  • Democratic or Participative leadership style
  • Pacesetting leadership style
  • Coaching leadership style

The idea is to use all these different styles appropriate and under the right circumstances, including the situation and the people involved. By changing styles in a flexible and fluid way, the leader manages to create an overall productive climate in the organization. Each of the styles is summarized in short below. We have in depth articles on all of them, so feel free to use the links below to jump to the appropriate section. I also strongly suggest you read Primal Leadership, which covers all these leadership styles. All styles are briefly explained below, so please continue reading after this overview image.

Feel free to use the image, as long as you link back to this page.

1.   Coercive or Directive Leadership Style

Known as either directive, coercive or commanding leadership, this style involves the leader taking all decisions and ordering the team around with close follow up. Thanks to the high clarity on expectations, rules and roles, the directive leadership can be very effective in teams of lower skill, especially where decisions often need to be taken fast. Directive leadership can lead to micromanagement and a drop in employee engagement. This drawback is extra damaging in teams with high skill.

Read more about directive leadership in out feature article: directive leadership.

2.   Authoritative or Visionary Leadership Style

The visionary style builds on greater understanding of the overall picture and the future of an organization. Visionary leadership means building a long term vision of the future together with the team members. Once finalized, the visionary leader communicates and sells the vision to the entire organization get the collective moving in that direction.

Read more about this style if you are interested: visionary leadership.

3.   Affiliative Leadership Style

Hopefully, you know all you need to know about the Affiliative leadership style since you read this far. If not, then please see above, this is the topic of this whole article after all.

4.   Democratic leadership style

Democratic leadership focuses on empowering team members to participate in the decision-making of the organization. Although aiming for consensus, the democratic leader still makes the decision or approves the decision of the team in the end. This leadership is known to be very effective, but it is sometimes too time consuming when quick and decisive action is required.

The above is a brief description taken from our article on Democratic Leadership.

5.   Pacesetting leadership style

A pacesetting leader leads by example and show how things should be done. There is an enormous focus on speed, performance and delivery in pacesetting leadership and it can achieve great results in short time. Too much of this can get stressful and lower employee engagement and well-being. Use this style in times of urgency when an additional push for performance is required.

You can read more about Pacesetting Leadership in a separate article.

6.   Coaching leadership style

In coaching leadership, the leader coaches people to develop into better individuals over time. It is time consuming to use real coaching leadership and it is a difficult style to master since it puts a lot of requirements on the skills of the leader.

This text is a short summary of our article about coaching leadership.

References

http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/affiliative-leadership.html
https://status.net/articles/affiliative-leadership/
https://publichealth.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/CPHPL__Leadership_That_Gets_Results.pdf

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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