The Power of Big Relationships

What better day to post a blog about “relationships” than on February 14th, St Valentine’s Day? Don’t worry: there are no love poems or red roses henceforth, just a good dose of research, neuroscience and common sense.

In any organisation, success relies so much on its staff. The phrase “you’re only as good as your team” or even “you’re only a strong as your weakest link” spring to mind. But surely that organisation has a moral obligation to invest in its staff to ensure their success? Surely that is mutually beneficial: staff success = organisational success.

In his book Leadership Plain and Simple, Steve Radcliffe said:

Basically, to get things done, we first generate possibilities and ideas of what could be. We then choose certain opportunities and priorities that we’ll plan to focus on. And then we’ll take actions inside those opportunities. And this leads to results.

2012, P55.

But there is something that is missing from the formula above. All of those components rely on one crucial element: relationships. You have to have relationships big enough to get the job done. And by ‘big enough’, Radcliffe means ‘strong enough’ or ‘good enough’.

If it were represented as a model, it would look like this:

James Kerr supports this idea; in his book Legacy he says:

High performing teams promote a culture of honesty, authenticity and safe conflict.

2013, P126

As a busy leader, it is easy to overlook this seemingly “fluffy” aspect of leadership. Who has time to spend on building relationships? How do you go about that in an INSET?

But one thing the last 12 months has taught me as a leader is the fundamental importance of spending time establishing, cultivating, broadening and deepening relationships. After all, who could have predicted that so many teams – who ordinarily worked in close proximity to each other – would be working remotely, adding a layer of complexity to relationships we had never experienced before.

Be under no illusion, relationships take time to establish, mature and take root. It is not a process that happens once and is done. It is an ongoing process that needs constant revisiting and refining.

In order to engage people, you need a relationship with them. If people feel listened to by you, feel that their opinion matters to you, believe that you actively want them involved, and get acknowledged by you, then you’ll be going a long way to engage them.

The more time you invest in nurturing the relationship, the bigger the relationship will become. This will then transform from engagement to delivery.

Radcliffe observes that leaders build big relationships but he also says that leaders make big requests.

This is where some leaders tend to shy away. How can they make a big request if they have no relationship? I’m not talking about the standard requests that come with the job – say a Phase Leader asking a member of their team for a piece of data – I’m talking more about the big requests linked to whole school improvement or change; the big requests that require full engagement and 100% commitment; the big requests that require colleagues to be in #LeaderMode and @OurBest.

Given the year of challenges we have been faced with – with particular reference to remote working – I am glad that I spent much of my first year as Deputy establishing, growing and cultivating Big Relationships with leaders at all levels. This investment in time has paid dividends over the last 12 months.

During one meeting, a colleague likened Lockdown 1.0 to “having one of your senses removed” (Smith, 2020) and I could not agree more. Usually, on a daily basis, we have hundreds of conversations with colleagues – most “corridor conversations” or incidental exchanges, others more planned and deliberate. During these exchanges, we are privvy to expression – both facial and body language – tone of voice, pace, speed and inflection. We are also aware of (or can be made aware of ) the context of the conversation and how it fit’s into the Big Picture.

When working remotely this was removed. We had to rely on the relationships we had built with each other prior to Lockdown.

For some leaders, spending time building relationships may sound a bit “soft” or “a waste of time” but in their book Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the brain gain advantage Swart, Chrisholm and Brown pose the question why is the soft stuff so hard?

The quotation that begins the chapter captures the tone of this blog thus far:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne

They suggest that “whilst it is generally agreed that the hard stuff is what can be measured, definitions of the soft stuff are legion, from brand design through emotional intelligence, to talent development, engagement, innovation and “people issues”. (2015, P76)

Douglas R Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soups, writing in Strategy and Business defined the soft stuff as: “problems of intention, understanding, communication and interpersonal effectiveness.” (2015, P76) My initial thoughts were that all Conant just defined are tabled, discussed, and developed during the period of forming Big Relationships.

Swart et al then made me consider Big Relationships from a different angle: one of neuroscience. Is our brain wired in a particular way that makes forming Big Relationships easier or more challenging? Does the balance of hormones affect our ability to establish, develop and cultivate Big Relationships? I was completely engaged.

Communication: the fundamental tool of leadership.

Mike Myatt summarised in Forbes magazine: “It is simply impossible to become a great leader without being a great communicator.” And I agree. Communication is foundational to all relationships – personal, professional, with pupils or with adults – and permeates relationships at all levels.

Humans communicate with their whole body, with intentional as well as non-intentional movements, with stance and stillness, with both what is actioned and what is not. At levels below our conscious awareness our brain is using its automatic ability to assign intent to a whole range of signals from other people to which our conscious brain, with its limited processing capacity, does not always pay attention.

This is called Theory of Mind (ToM). Having a Theory of Mind means that we can distinguish between our self and others, understand that other people’s behaviours are driven by their goals and beliefs, not ours, and that our knowledge and perspective is different to everyone else’s. (P79)

As Gallese says, “Most of the time, our understanding of social situations is immediate, automatic and reflex-like.” This again confirms the need to invest time building the automaticity of relationships, given that under current circumstances – as I said earlier – that “sense” can be taken away.

When I talk about leadership, I refer to leadership at all levels: from a class teacher’s view point, Sue Cowley wrote: “The more effective a teacher is at interacting – at communicating knowledge, attitudes, expectations and so on – the more likely it is that the pupils will learn and behave.”

In summary, Swart et at neatly summarise The Power of Relationship:

“Leadership communication, in order to be effective, needs to build a relationship between people. We are more likely to be influenced by someone with whom you have a relationship of trust, and with whom you share some beliefs. A trusted leader who communicates with integrity can develop relationships of trust with people in their organisation, even with those whom they have never met. Those relationships can, in turn, become the basis for changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.” (2015, P84)

For me, on my mission to be an authentic leader, the “soft stuff” is definitely the place to start. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t have high expectations and won’t hold people to account. Far from it. I would even go as far as to say with the “soft stuff” established and embedded, the stuff will become less hard.

Consider yourself as a leader: where do you spend most of your time? Working on “the hard stuff”? Would this be easier if we front loaded our leadership paying attention to “soft stuff”? How does this fit with your values as a leader? Who in your support network is best to assist with this?

To close, take some time to reflect on this: Rita Pierson – in her TED Talk Every Kid Needs a Champion – said “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Can the same be said for us as leaders?

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