What is Relationship-Oriented Leadership? How Supporting People Promotes Teamwork

Relationship-oriented leadership style is centered on people.

The relationship-oriented leadership style is centered on people. Relations-oriented leaders are attuned to the expectations and interactions of subordinates. They are devoted to person-oriented leadership.

In return for advocating on behalf of staff, people-oriented leaders expect loyalty.

The relationship-oriented leadership style is often contrasted with task-oriented leadership, which is more tightly focused on getting work done and less focused on motivating people by tending to their emotional needs.

Most organizations require both types of leadership. Read on to learn more.

Relations-oriented leadership definition

Relationship-oriented leaders are positive. They have optimistic views of the world and their roles in it. They are rarely cynical, even under the most difficult circumstances.

Relations-oriented leaders are self-assured. They foster relationships throughout their lives by building and maintaining personal networks. This quality often makes relationship-oriented leaders successful.

When blended with other leadership styles, such as transformational, people-oriented leaders can accomplish amazing feats.

What is the definition of people-oriented leadership?

“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader,” Eleanor Roosevelt once said. “A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”

Roosevelt’s quotation illustrates the key premise of relationship-oriented leadership. Simply put:

Relations-oriented leaders inspire employees to meet an organization’s goals by helping them feel better about their work and stay positive about their careers. This is sometimes referred to as emotional leadership.

This style is also called:

  • People-oriented leadership
  • Relationship-focused leadership
  • Consideration leadership
  • Inspirational leadership

How does relations-oriented leadership differ from other styles?

Relationship-focused leaders tend to be more prevalent at the executive level than task-driven types.

Task-oriented leaders often thrive at middle-management levels, where teams are focused on completing assignments. Because their responsibilities are often project based, they have quick turnaround times that require deadline-driven management.

Task-oriented leaders are devoted to meeting deadlines and achieving organizational objectives through a mix of standard operating procedures and protocols, disciplinary actions and ongoing feedback.

Relations-oriented people often have grand visions.

Whether they’re corporate executives, nonprofit directors or educational leaders, they view organizational planning through a long-range lens focused on relationships. They understand that cultivating strong bonds with talented, hard-working people is vital to accomplishing organizational goals.

Both types of leaders are focused on teamwork. However, task-oriented leaders tend to be more assignment driven.

History of relations-oriented leadership

Relations-oriented leadership came to light in the 1960s, when psychologist Fred Fiedler introduced the contingency model in his book “The Theory of Leadership Effectiveness.”

Throughout his career, Fiedler expanded on the concept of distinguishing leaders who are motivated by people, projects or power. The contingency model divides leaders into three categories.

  • Relations: Leaders establish mutual respect, trust and confidence with subordinates to maintain order and accomplish work.
  • Task: Leaders create group structure and establish clear goals, protocols and unambiguous roles to complete assignments and projects.
  • Power: Leaders rely on traditional hierarchies and well-established roles based on org charts to enforce compliance and achieve goals.

Fiedler, who taught business and management psychology at the University of Washington, pointed out that well-balanced business leaders adopt a mix of these categories, depending on the group or situation they’re managing.

People-oriented leadership research

Fiedler’s work on relations-oriented leadership continued throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. He developed the Least Preferred Co-worker (LPC) model to help determine whether a given leader places a premium on people or projects.

Fiedler’s LPC model asked leaders to rate individual team members on a scale of 1-8. The leader’s perspective of each individual had a direct impact on the score.

Least Preferred Co-worker rating traits such as these:

  • Unfriendly – Friendly
  • Uncooperative – Cooperative
  • Hostile – Supportive
  • Guarded – Open

Based on how they ranked subordinates, Fiedler and his associates rated participants as either relations- or task-oriented leaders. They discovered the relationship-oriented leadership style works best on teams that require creative thinking and problem solving — such as computer programming or product design.

By comparison, the task-oriented leadership style is usually preferable in work groups that require repetitive actions. The characteristics of task-oriented leadership are similar to the autocratic leadership style, which often works best in manufacturing and customer service-oriented businesses.

In short, relations-oriented leaders focus on the individual needs of team members.

Examples of relations-oriented leadership

Effective relations-oriented leadership focuses on positive action, communication and collaboration.
Additional qualities of employee-oriented leadership range from showing an interest in the personal lives of subordinates to spearheading initiatives that bring teams together, such as periodic get-togethers outside the office. These can be informal or centered on work-related goals.

Team-building activities:

  • Lunch gatherings
  • Coffee or juice bar breaks
  • Offsite adventures like nature walks
  • Workshops led by motivational speakers
  • Half-day team challenges like indoor climbing
  • Weekend seminars focused on strategic planning

Building camaraderie is a common theme for the team-oriented leadership style.

In groups where people work independently, building camaraderie may be less important. However, seeing eye-to-eye is necessary on emergency teams, where people are focused on mutual goals and precision timing to accomplish their jobs.

Where are relations-oriented leaders in demand?

For human resources professionals, hospital personnel, police and other first-responders, working extremely well together is vital.

Examples of professions with relations-oriented leaders.

  • Human resources: Personnel professionals (also known as HR, employee relations and talent resources) are invariably good with people. They show an interest in employees and are often relied upon to mediate differences and arbitrate disputes between team members and, occasionally, leaders and subordinates. They are challenged with supporting employees while simultaneously understanding management’s perspective. HR leaders must maintain an organization-wide view based on daily objectives and long-range goals.
  • Healthcare industry: Leaders who work at hospitals and clinics must balance the needs of patients, physicians, nurses and other professionals with the financial demands of running a business. This requires a blend of leadership styles — from autocratic to relationship focused. Among nurses, task-oriented leaders are appropriate for surgery and post-operative recovery teams, where procedures are crucial. Nurses and administrative staff involved in patient admittance and hospice care require extraordinary levels of sensitivity and compassion. They are well-suited for the relations-oriented leadership style.
  • Police departments: A classic candidate for people-oriented leadership is a workplace prone to poor communication and low morale. Many police forces throughout the country regularly experience such issues. Relations-oriented management has been instituted on some police forces to reduce friction. Police departments often must diagnose themselves. It is up to people-oriented leaders to figure out what’s going on and find ways to improve relations.

Why should police leaders focus on people relations?

Expanding on the police department example, Donald Grinder wrote in The Police Chief magazine that officers should possess courage, competence, compassion, commitment, restraint, respect and integrity.

As a lieutenant with the Arlington County Police Department in Virginia, he penned the article, “People-Oriented Leadership.”

In 2003 Grinder wrote:

“Now more than ever it is imperative for police managers to make connections with their employees, understand their backgrounds, uncover their talents, and place them in positions where they can excel.”

Why does people-oriented leadership work?

People-oriented leadership works because individual employees and team members value empathy and appreciate a genuine focus on their well-being.

It’s easy to lose a sense of personal identity in the workplace. Leaders who address workers’ individual concerns are often trusted and respected by their staffs. Team members who feel appreciated are considered more likely to improve their organizations.

Are CEOs effective relationship-oriented leaders?

Corporate CEOs, executive directors of nonprofit organizations, university presidents and other institutional leaders who claim to place a premium on people are sometimes criticized for being either superficially interested in staff or preoccupied with relationship building.

These criticisms often fail to consider the many responsibilities top executives have when it comes to balancing the needs of staff with the demands of customers, clients, investors, board members and community leaders.

A chief executive officer usually oversees an entire company, whereas a team leader is responsible for fewer people. It’s important to keep that comparison in perspective when assessing relationship-oriented leadership in the C-suite.

Famous relations-oriented leaders

  • Patricia Woertz has enjoyed a decades-long reputation as a relationship builder. The CEO of Archer Daniels Midland learned the importance of client relationships early in her career as a CPA for Ernst & Young. Her subsequent roles in finance and marketing at Gulf and Chevron prepared her for the rough-and-tumble world of oil exploration. As the CEO of an energy company, where knowledge and experience are paramount, Woertz consistently emphasized the importance of employee development. “I’m able to see other people grow,” Woertz said in an interview with the dean of a U.S. business school. “I challenge them.”
  • Amadeo P. Giannini was one of the first U.S. bankers to embrace mergers. He launched San Francisco-based The Bank of Italy in 1904 and expanded Bank of America in 1929 when he merged the two. Giannini, a native of nearby San Jose, with a large population of immigrant farmers, understood the importance of strong family relations. He innovated the banking industry by offering monthly home mortgage payments, followed by automobile financing. Giannini believed bankers ought to know their communities by knocking on doors and was devoted to recruiting top-notch employees from competitors to do just that.
  • Kenneth Chenault earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1976. He practiced briefly as an attorney and then went to work for Bain & Company as a consultant. Chenault joined American Express in 1981 and became CEO 20 years later. At American Express, he leveraged his law experience and relationships in finance. He is considered pragmatic and open-minded. Chenault believes “everyone can make a conscious choice to be a leader.” As CEO and chairman of American Express, he has cultivated relationships with airlines, hotels, retailers and car companies, guiding the credit card firm through the most volatile period in recent U.S. history.
  • Nancy Brinker started the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization. The Dallas-based research and educational nonprofit is named after Brinker’s sister, who died of breast cancer at age 36. Brinker served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 2001 to 2003. She is also a goodwill ambassador to the World Health Organization. Brinker is a logical fit for the relations-oriented leadership style. However, launching a health foundation with staying power and maintaining a positive public image takes more than just strong people skills. Brinker, a breast cancer survivor, has worked tirelessly to find a cure through relationship building.
  • Frank Capra earned a reputation as a rare creative genius who is easy to work for. He directed “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “Meet John Doe.” Capra wrote in his autobiography that he was deeply grateful for the opportunities he found in the United States after emigrating from Italy. He worked his way through college, studied chemical engineering and discovered his love for film as a young man. After serving as an officer in the U.S. Army, Capra began making optimistic films. As a director and producer, he was devoted to his actors and the entire movie production crews with whom he worked.
  • John Wooden was tough but fair as basketball coach at Indiana State and UCLA for nearly three decades. The Hoosier native placed a premium on education and was not above benching players whose grades were subpar. As basketball coaches go, Wooden was not an authoritarian in the strictest sense. He was a relations-oriented leader who developed strong bonds with his players. He placed a premium on preparation, compiling an astounding 620-147 record at UCLA, including several undefeated seasons. Wooden won an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships. “Whatever you do in life,” he once said, “surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.”

Quotations from relations-oriented leaders

Studies have linked relationship-style leadership to improvements in job satisfaction, reduced employee turnover and higher organizational commitment. Because most leaders find it impractical to adopt one exclusive leadership style, each workplace situation requires a different approach.

These leaders are known for adopting a relations-oriented style. Here are some quotations from famous people-oriented leaders:

  • Pope Francis: “We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us…expand the circle of ideas.”
  • Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, computer scientist: “You manage things, you lead people.”
  • Billy Graham, evangelist: “Each life is made up of mistakes and learning, waiting and growing, practicing patience and being persistent.”
  • Peter Drucker, management consultant: “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”
  • George C. Marshall, former U.S. Army chief of staff and secretary of state: “I cannot expect loyalty from the army if I do not give it.”
  • Anita Roddick, The Body Shop founder: “You have to look at leadership through the eyes of the followers and you have to live the message.”
  • Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
  • Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder: “In terms of doing work and in terms of learning and evolving as a person, you just grow more when you get more people’s perspectives.”
  • Olympia Snowe, former U.S. senator from Maine: “You can never solve a problem without talking to people with whom you disagree.”
  • Daniel Servitje Montull, CEO of Grupo Bimbo: “I think it is vital to step back and listen to the diverse perspectives of your team and your customers.”
  • Ron Howard, director, producer and actor: “I’ve acted with all types, I’ve directed all types. What you want to understand, as a director, is what actors have to offer. They’ll get at it however they get at it. If you can understand that, you can get your work done.”

Relations-oriented leadership case study: Starbucks

Howard Schultz of Starbucks is a people-oriented leader who devotes attention to building relationships with employees, as well as customers. Like all successful business leaders, Schultz is focused on profits. But he is sometimes criticized for being market-obsessed.

Shortly after Schultz resumed the position of chairman and CEO in 2008, Starbucks announced it would close hundreds of unprofitable stores in the United States. This resulted in the layoffs of more than 12,000 employees.

On the one hand, this action hardly mirrors the qualities of a people-oriented leader.

On the other hand, Shultz safeguarded the company’s future when he led the decision to close an estimated 600 underperforming stores.

The coffee chain, one of the first food-and-beverage service companies to offer healthcare benefits and stock equity to eligible full- and part-time employees, has since opened new stores worldwide. Starbucks has expanded into international markets and is thriving.

Schultz is attuned to products that fail to catch on in stores. He doesn’t hesitate to eliminate controversial programs that falter or to discontinue merchandise if it becomes obsolete. The decision to stop selling music CDs is an example of knowing when to exit a mature business.

In contrast, the recent announcement that Starbucks will cover the full tuition costs for employees interested in earning online college degrees demonstrates Schultz’s commitment to relations-oriented leadership.

“I think the currency of leadership is transparency,” Shultz said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “You’ve got to be truthful. I don’t think you should be vulnerable every day, but there are moments where you’ve got to share your soul and conscience with people and show them who you are, and not be afraid of it.”

Watch this video to hear Schultz discuss leadership at Starbucks and his decision to return as a relationship-oriented CEO in 2008.

Relations-oriented leadership style requirements

The relations-oriented management style fell out of vogue somewhat as organizations became increasingly project driven due to downsizing. Consequently, private companies, as well as nonprofit organizations — and some government agencies — have become more productive.

In some cases, this means they’ve learned to accomplish more with fewer people.

As the U.S. economy continues to recover, the demand for full-time permanent employees is likely to increase. For people with relations-oriented leadership skills, this may translate into greater opportunities to recruit collaborative teams that work in sync.

To build these teams, relations-oriented leaders are apt to select people who work well together. This requires leaders to recognize the characteristics of relations-oriented people who match their traits.

Characteristics of relationship-oriented leaders:

  • Caring
  • Encouraging
  • Motivating
  • Developing
  • Supporting

These qualities are not limited solely to relations-oriented leaders. Whether they’re democratic, laissez-faire or task-oriented leaders, lots of people exhibit these traits. The primary difference is that relations-oriented leaders use these qualities as glue to bond people together on a daily basis.

A sense of humor is a prerequisite

One of the most important personality traits for relations-oriented leaders is a sense of humor. Psychologists and staffing consultants often cite a sense of humor as crucial to building strong teams led by people with relations-oriented leadership abilities.

People who work for leaders who can poke fun without being cruel, who are funny without being insulting, are more likely to surround themselves with relations-oriented staff.

In turn, these people are more inclined to “roll with the punchlines.” They are more likely to have flexible attitudes and to be cooperative when the going gets tough. This helps create a congenial atmosphere rather than an adversarial environment.

Technology is a relationship-building tool

Today’s technology can enhance relations among staff. From email and chat applications and social media sites to file-sharing programs and videoconferencing software, technology can improve communications and productivity.

Technology can also waste time, cause consternation and create adversarial relationships between people who abuse it.

HR departments have used technology to improve employee relations since the early 1990s, when CD-ROMs and other digital formats were adopted to communicate corporate-wide policies and keep people informed about new procedures.

Today’s HR leaders have migrated to cloud computing. Web-based training modules help assist leaders in explaining organization-wide policies. One of the best examples is the use of online workshops that educate people about workplace diversity, bias sensitivity and fairness issues.

Advantages and disadvantages of relations-oriented leadership

Leaders who use the relations-oriented style need to always remind themselves of the task at hand. Focusing on people’s needs alone will not get projects completed on time. Relationship-oriented leaders need to maintain a balance between the organization’s goals and individual needs.

Every private company, nonprofit foundation, government agency and educational institution must meet its goals. Simultaneously, team members should find fulfillment in their work. It’s the leader’s job to balance these objectives.

The main advantage of relations-oriented leadership is that it brings leaders and subordinates closer together. In turn, team members gain a sense of belonging.

The primary disadvantage is that relationship building is time-consuming and not always appropriate in a task-oriented environment, where critiquing subordinates is frequently necessary.

Relations-oriented leadership pros

  • Trust is built between leaders and subordinates.
  • Ingenuity, creativity and fulfillment are reinforced by teams.
  • Camaraderie is developed between people, and it can last for decades.
  • Productivity is increased because people look forward to working together.

Relations-oriented leadership cons

  • High maintenance of relationship building is time-consuming.
  • Manipulation can occur when people take advantage of personal relationships.
  • Sensitivity to minor incidents can cause strife between team members and leaders.
  • Productivity can decrease as a result of people focusing too much on personal relations.

Benefits of relations-oriented leadership

Leadership is a prerequisite for many career paths. Unfortunately, adopting a personal leadership style isn’t easy.

Fortunately, leadership is an acquired skill. It can be learned through practice and by interacting with experts.

Yesterday’s people-oriented leaders

People-oriented leaders have existed for centuries, but the concept of relations-oriented leadership is relatively modern. It emerged more than 50 years ago when Fiedler began exploring different leadership styles beyond the widely accepted authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire models.

After Fiedler developed his contingency models, organizational psychologists started comparing relations- and task-oriented leadership. As Fiedler theorized, most successful leaders do not fall into one category or the other. They blend people- or task-orientated styles with different techniques, including transformational and situational leadership.

Today’s people-oriented leaders

As the U.S. economy gains momentum, companies and organizations are continuing to hire full-time employees. This creates a need for leaders at all levels who can spearhead short-term projects while implementing long-range roadmaps.

Although demand for task-oriented leaders and project managers will probably grow, those with people-oriented skills have an advantage if they can integrate a blend of styles, including relations-oriented leadership.

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