To create results, leaders must put relationships first



Should a manager focus primarily on results or people? Should the manager be the one who sets KPIs and drives employees towards their goals, or should the manager rather be the one who understands and likes employees and is able to build good relationships with them?

In 2009 James Zenger published a study that examined exactly that question. He found that if a manager is seen as being particularly focused on results alone, he/she will be seen as a good manager by only 14 % of the employees. If a manager has only strong social skills, the manager is regarded as being a good manager by a mere 12 % of the employees.

However, for those managers who are both focused on results and have strong social skills, the likelihood of being evaluated as a good manager rockets to 72 %. But here is the bad news: Less than 1 % of the managers in Zenger’s study were evaluated as being strong on results and having strong social skills. Ouch!

But how can it be that so few managers master both? An article from Harvard Business Review by Matthew Lieberman provides the answer: It is the brain’s fault. Our brains simply have a hard time being both socially and analytically focused at the same time. In the article and in his outstanding book “Why Our Brains Are Wired To Connect”, Lieberman writes:

Even though thinking social and analytically don’t feel radically different, evolution built our brain with different networks for handling these two ways of thinking.

In the frontal lobe, regions on the outer surface, closer to the skull, are responsible for analytical thinking and are highly related to IQ. In contrast, regions in the middle of the brain, where the two hemispheres touch, support social thinking.

Here’s the really surprising thing about the brain: These two networks function like a neural seesaw. In countless neuroimaging studies, the more one of these networks got active, the more the other one got quieter. […] in general, engaging in one of these kinds of thinking makes it harder to engage in the other kind.

We know from extensive research that happiness at work is primarily affected by two factors, namely results and relationships.

Employees love their jobs when they make a difference at work, and when they feel cared for as human beings. These two factors determine – far more than gyms, massages and other perks – whether employees are happy, motivated and productive, or not. That is why it is essential to have managers who are able to help employees experience both.

Yet, in the business community, it is depressingly common to primarily acknowledge results-oriented managers, instead of those with strong social skills. Usually, the most professionally competent employees are promoted to managerial positions, even if they lack the social skills it takes to be a manager. If these new managers do not get the training/further education they need, it has a directly negative impact on happiness at work and consequently on productivity.

Here is a radical idea: I believe that you will have more success if you select managers with excellent social skills, and train them to become more focused on results. I believe that it is much easier for a person with good social skills to learn to focus on results, than it is for a hard-core results-driven person to develop social skills and empathy.

Southwest Airlines have long done this. The excellent book “The Southwest Airlines Way” by Jody Hoffer-Gittell reveals the secret to Southwest’s remarkable success: high performance relationships that create enormous competitive advantage in motivation, teamwork, and coordination among Southwest employees. For instance, when Southwest looks for new managers, the most important skill is the ability to connect with others and create good relationships.

Personally, I am convinced that the most important leadership skill is to actually like other people.

We also have to consider how we reward managers. Most workplaces reward managers for creating good results, but how many have bonus arrangements considering those who build good relations? Why not split the managers’ bonuses 50/50 between results and relations? If we only reward one of the two, it only encourages one type of behaviour, and the one-sided focus on results will eventually harm results and the bottom line.

Your take

Think about the best manager you’ve ever had or met. What made that manager effective? What about examples of bad management you’ve seen – what made those managers bad?

Do you agree that relationship skills are the most important for managers?

Write a comment - I’d love to hear your take.

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3 thoughts on “To create results, leaders must put relationships first”

  1. Hello Alexander

    I’m not a a business expert but I have a good eye when it comes to leadership. As you mentioned managers who focuses on the result and the people working for them will be surely viewed good by more employees. It basically relies on their priorities. A work-focused manager will likely give more importance on the results of a job than her employees health. So she will be more strict when it comes to work. While a person-focused manager will be more socially active and friendly which in return also be counter productive since she will have the tendency to be more lenient towards his/her co-workers. But if the manager is focused both on the work and the person, she creates a professional and a social relationship with her subordinates, the business will progress because there would be more collaboration and the work place would a have a better positive atmosphere. Thank you for sharing your views. I enjoyed reading the article.


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