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Relationship-Oriented Leadership

Updated November 28, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

Some of the strongest relationship-oriented leaders I have met in my CEO roles were amazing to watch. They could truly do magic for employee engagement and get a team moving in the same direction. However, relationship-oriented leadership also needs to be balanced, as I will show you in this article. We start with an explanation of relationship-oriented leadership.

Relationship-oriented leadership focuses on people and relationships, while task-oriented items such as output, production, and activities get lower priority. Relationship-oriented is strong for building team commitment but needs to be balanced since too much focus on people can jeopardize performance and output.

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What is relationship-oriented leadership?

There are many leadership studies and theories that use relationship-oriented leadership behavior to explain and define leadership and management aspects. As mentioned in our article on task-oriented leadership, the Ohio State leadership studies and the Michigan University leadership studies tried to figure out and conclude which leadership behaviors led to organizational success. This was in the days of behavioral leadership theory when situational aspects were still mostly excluded. During this research, which took place in the 1940s, task-oriented and relationship-oriented leadership were the two evaluation categories used, all be it under different names. Many decades later, leaders and researchers alike still use and discuss the concept of relationship-oriented leadership. (You can read about all these theories and more in our e-book Leadership Origins.)

Relationship-oriented leaders focus specifically on people and relationships, which builds vision, purpose, communication, alignment, cooperation, engagement, creativity, and many different aspects connected to employees. Relationship-oriented leaders spend most of their time building personal bonds and loyalty with each team member in order to understand what concerns, motivates, develops, and challenges them. The relationship-oriented leader also puts effort into building a close-knit team with mutual rapport, relationships, and emotional connections between all the individual members, not just between the leader and the team members.

Relationship-oriented leadership is virtually the opposite of task-oriented leadership, and although they were seen as mutually exclusive in earlier studies, lots of research has concluded that great leaders display both task-oriented and relationship-oriented leadership. In the end, it is all about using the right behaviors at the appropriate times, depending on the situation and circumstances. (Both the Ohio and Michigan studies mentioned above reached this very conclusion.) The so-called contingency theory of leadership, including several other leadership theories, started taking situational aspects into account soon thereafter, essentially in the 1960s.

Relationship-oriented leadership in more considerable proportions, works best in creative, collaborative, and innovative environments where people need purpose, vision, and imagination to deliver their output. These could be consultancy companies, sales teams, management teams, health care, and design-related businesses, for instance. Highly skilled and experienced staff normally puts stronger requirements on relationship-oriented leadership than low-skilled staff due to the nature of the work.

Relationship orientation can be reduced in more repetitive and transactional environments where less time is needed for building dialogue and a deeper purpose, and detailed instructions can be used instead. This could be assembly line work, warehouse operations, fast food establishments, or stores, for instance.

Here are some leadership theories that include relationship-oriented leadership:

Why is relationship-oriented leadership important?

Do note that all the areas described as benefitting from task orientation above (assembly, warehouse, fast food, stores, etc.) still benefit from some relationship-oriented leadership. Although task-oriented leadership can lead to good productivity, the employees need additional reasons to really go the extra mile beyond monetary incentives. (Refer to: Why Visionary leadership is so important and why we need it.)

Consider the difference between an employee who simply goes to work, puts in the hours, goes through the motions, and gets the agreed salary versus an employee in the same position who genuinely cares about the future of the team, the customer, and the organization. This is how relationship-oriented leadership can drive productivity beyond purely task-focused leadership environments. I show you exactly how to do this in my democratic leadership course. I teach you how to build that engagement, purpose, and extra productivity that you can get through participation and strong relationships. Check it out. It will likely boost your performance and, as a result, also your career and your paycheck.

If you manage to get that extra strength in your team that only a relationship-oriented leadership style such as democratic leadership can give, you will be impressed with their results and capabilities.

That said, if you lose all focus on output, i.e., the task orientation, it will become all about having fun and thriving together in harmony. No one pushes you for output, no one expects you to put in the extra effort. Pure people and relationship-oriented leadership become country club management, a leadership style of Blake and Mouton’s managerial grid. Without any output, most organizations wither and die.

The characteristics of relationship-oriented leadership

Relationship-oriented leadership involves the following characteristics:

1. Listening, understanding, and participation

Relationship-oriented leaders listen to others, including employees and other stakeholders, in order to gather input and build a sense of participation. This is identical to democratic leadership, which puts a high focus on participation. If the team members genuinely feel listened to and understood, they will feel respected and be more willing to participate in improving the organization.

2. Supportive attitude toward team members

The participation mentioned above also means team members become more supportive of each other since they genuinely understand and care about each other’s challenges and see the best possible outcome for the entire team. The relationship-oriented leader also knows each team member well enough to develop and coach them to become better professionals and persons in the longer term.

3. Showing empathy and focus on well-being

The support and understanding nature of a relationship-oriented team builds on plenty of empathy, where emotions matter and a lot of focus is put on everyone’s well-being. Stress and other risk factors are monitored and dealt with more thoroughly in order to keep everyone performing and participating in the team. (Much like the modern affiliative leadership.)

4. Building trust, loyalty, and team climate

All the empathy, support, and care between the leader and employees build solid trust and in time, equally strong loyalty. Both these factors contribute to a great team climate, with team members willing to go the extra mile for each other and truly care for the future of the team and the organization it belongs to.

The above characteristics bear plenty of resemblance with several of the six leadership styles by Goleman and also match well with transformational leadership within the Full Range Leadership Model, see below.

A 116 page E-book with articles on Great Man Theory, Trait Theory, Behavioral Theories (Lewin, Ohio, Michigan, Blake & Mouton), Contingency Theories (Fiedler, Path-Goal, Situational)

Examples of relationship-oriented leadership styles

Here are some examples of relationship-oriented leadership styles:

Examples of relationship-oriented leadership

In order to give you a better understanding of relationship-oriented leadership and how it works in practice, I put together a list of typical relationship-oriented leadership situations:

  • Creative advertising agency
  • Architect enterprise
  • Management team
  • Technology development

Remember that solely leaning on relationship-oriented leadership is a bad idea, as you will see in the coming disadvantages section. Complete and total focus on relationships means output is at risk.

Advantages and disadvantages of relationship-oriented leadership

Most studies, modern as well as earlier from the 1940s, showed that the best and most effective leaders use a combination of relationship-oriented leadership and task-oriented leadership (Ohio leadership studies and Michigan leadership studies, for instance). Hence, regardless of the type of industry an organization belongs to, really skilled leaders will use both. It is simply about obtaining the most appropriate balance.

Advantages of relationship-oriented leadership

The advantages of relationship-oriented leadership are:

  • Strong team commitment and loyalty through relationship building and participation
  • Creativity and Innovation are enabled through the open climate
  • Decision-making can be delegated since team members are more aware of the long-term needs and purpose of the organization
  • Less dependency on the leader enables better succession planning
  • Employee engagement is strong, which helps to reduce employee turnover
  • People are developed, resulting in a more professional and skilled organization

Disadvantages of relationship-oriented leadership

There are also some drawbacks to focusing too much on relationship-oriented leadership, and I caution you to balance it with task-oriented leadership the right way.

The disadvantages of relationship-oriented leadership are:

  • Relationships get too much focus, and underperformance is tolerated
  • Participation can be time-consuming, which is negative in a crisis when fast decision-making is necessary
  • Employees with little experience are not initially productive due to a lack of detailed instructions
  • Relationships and collaboration can lead to conflicts that could have been avoided in task-oriented environments
  • Responsibility and accountability can become too group-oriented: If everyone is accountable then no one truly is

Other names for relationship-oriented leadership

Relationship-oriented leadership is part of many leadership theories under various names. One leadership theory that specifically uses the actual name of relationship-oriented leadership is Fiedler’s contingency model specifically uses the term relationship-oriented leadership, while others call it people or considerate behaviors for instance. Despite the different names, the core is very similar.

Relationship-oriented leadership is also referred to as:

Summary of Relationship-oriented leadership

Although an element of task-orientated leadership is a necessity for all managers and leaders, there needs to be a focus on employees, which is relationship-oriented leadership. Loads of research have proven that purely focusing on one of these behaviors will risk the future of the organization. Overuse relationship-oriented leadership, and you risk losing productivity altogether, reaching country club management. Too much task orientation leads to produce-or-perish leadership, which obviously is not good.

A balanced proportion of long-term focus on relationship orientation will truly build the team, making it more productive as well as resilient.

You should also look at additional and even more modern leadership theories, which contain situational aspects, i.e. contingency theories of leadership, and emotional intelligence, such as the six leadership styles by Goleman and the transformational leadership style of the Full Range Leadership Model.

To sum up: you definitely should use relationship-oriented leadership, but balance it appropriately, and do not forget about the tasks and activities that still need to be performed.

Further reading

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