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Don’t Let Work Relationships Become Emotional Minefields

Human relationships are dynamic, not static. Leaders who rest on their laurels or take people for granted can find themselves with problem relationships down the road.

When people sense a lack of connectedness with their leader—and as a result feel undervalued and unappreciated—they are much more likely to focus their energy on individual needs rather than to engage in the work of the organization. Once this happens, work relationships can quickly degenerate into emotional minefields.

When employees feel unappreciated, their performance suffers and they need support from their leaders. But leaders who see employee performance slipping often make things worse by focusing on employees’ poor performance and tightening up on discipline. This leads to even more feelings of alienation on the part of the employees. Now it seems as though leaders only care about what the employees have done for them lately. At this point, communication between employee and leader can be fraught with negative emotions and misunderstandings.

No wonder many leaders prefer to keep emotions completely out of the equation and instead maintain a professional distance in their work relationships. This approach might avoid the worst of the problems described above, but it won’t foster the emotional commitment and connectedness with the leader that is a key part of our employee work passion equation. Our research over the past five years has shown that the extent to which an individual perceives he or she has a supportive and personal relationship with his or her leader is one of 12 factors that lead to a sense of employee well-being and intentions to perform at a higher level.

Three Steps to a Better Work Relationship

If you have recognized that some of your reporting relationships aren’t what they should be, here are some suggestions for creating the type of strong, connected, working relationships that meet the needs of employees, leaders, and the organization as a whole.

Set clear expectations.  All good performance starts with clear goals—and all good relationships start with clear expectations. When a relationship is new, for example when you hire a new employee, you create a job description that clearly states the performance requirements and the results you are looking for. In return, you, as the leader, agree to provide the direction and support needed to help the employee succeed. But as time passes and the relationship between a leader and an employee evolves, it is normal for expectations to evolve and change also. The problem occurs when there isn’t a periodic check-in to make sure that that manager and direct report are still on the same page. If some of your work relationships are currently off track, start by comparing your expectations with those of your people. If you find discrepancies (and you probably will) it’s time to set or reset goals.

Pay attention.  With clear agreements in place, keep the relationship healthy and productive by paying attention. Look for opportunities to praise performance, acknowledge results, and reaffirm that both the employee and the work being done are important. Also, pay attention to things that aren’t working as intended or agreed upon, and redirect behavior as appropriate. The important thing is to be diligent in noticing employees’ performance and communicating about it.

Also, take the time to acknowledge the person beyond the employee. Recognize that employees have a life beyond work—and you do too. Appropriately build rapport by paying attention to what is going on in other aspects of their lives and how they are doing in general. Demonstrate that you care about them as people.

Don’t go overboard.  If this is all new to you and you recognize that your approach to the emotional side of work relationships in the past has been "maintain a professional distance," take a measured approach moving forward. A slight shift is all that is necessary to create the connectedness we are talking about. The good news is that loosening up as relationships progress is a natural process. Keep in mind that this is not about letting performance standards slip—it’s about adding an extra dimension to your leadership style.

Results and relationships are not mutually exclusive. When you combine a focus on results with a focus on people, you are using a double-sided approach toward a great outcome.

Scott Blanchard is the Executive Vice President of Client Solutions for The Ken Blanchard Companies®. Ken Blanchard is the best-selling co-author of The One Minute Manager® and 50 other books on leadership. You can follow Ken Blanchard on Twitter @KenBlanchard, @LeaderChat and also via the HowWeLead and LeaderChat blogs.

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