Leadership: Relationships – Building Personal Relationships

Building Personal Relationships appropriate for the workplace has 4 parts:

  • Empathy: Show consideration for the feelings and sensitivities of others;
  • Objectivity: Be free from prejudicial, stereotypical thinking, words and actions;
  • Wisdom: Provide individual criticism tactfully and constructively;
  • Poise: Maintain composure in high-pressure situations

Effective leaders have many characteristics in common. Often overlooked is the importance of building personal relationships with their people. The first 3 qualities listed above are based upon the manager’s empathy and sensitivity. The fourth quality has to do with the manager’s maturity, poise, and self-control in stressful situations. Personal relationships provide the opportunity for direct reports to know their managers, and for managers to know their people.

Empathy and Sensitivity: Building personal relationships requires time, skill, and sensitivity. Empathy requires sensitivity and skill. Sensitivity is heightened when you are able to put yourself in the shoes of another. For example, how would you feel if you were a new worker, and the only one under 25 in the workgroup? Putting ourselves in another person’s place is a skill that helps us to understand sensitively the behaviors and reactions of others. If a new worker is somewhat withdrawn from their work group, but is comfortable with their peers from other work groups, we can understand the behaviors empathetically. With a more realistic and sensitive understanding we won’t conclude, “they don’t like us.” However, we need to be aware of the universal tendency to react quickly and without empathy to a person’s behavior.

Prejudicial and Stereotypical Thinking: Stereotyping and prejudice occur when we have a broad, negative evaluation of a group of people. Without knowing the individual, we label him/her with the negative evaluation. For example, the belief in the stereotype, “all postal workers are rude and insensitive,” causes one to treat an individual postal worker curtly and without respect.

Breaking stereotypes requires a willingness to see and undo the damage. We must continue to develop empathy and sensitivity, even beyond our ability to imagine being in the shoes of another. We can do this by simply spending time with individuals, getting to know who they really are, and not seeing them through the lens of prejudicial and stereotypical thinking. In contrast to empathy and sensitivity, judging and stereotyping damage personal relationships.

To provide individual criticism tactfully and constructively, a manager needs first to think of how he or she likes to receive feedback. Second, the manager needs to understand how they impact the feelings of others with spoken and written language, tone of voice and body language. Critical feedback should be provided in private, at a time that does not add pressure to the conversation, and with sensitivity to the choice of words. The person will usually feel uncomfortable hearing the negative message, but the key to making the conversation successful is in making sure they hear “the rest of the message:” the manager’s caring and concern.

Maintaining composure in high-pressure situations requires a strong sense of responsibility, good will, stress management, and self-awareness. Each of these factors deserves a longer explanation than this space allows. Owning the manager’s responsibility for modeling behavior under stress should be sufficient motivation to work on good will, stress management, and self-awareness.

For additional growth building personal relationships at work:

  • Read Bringing Out the Best in Others, by Thomas K. Connellan, Ph.D;
  • Read Crucial Conversations, by Patterson/Grenny/McMillan/Switzler;
  • Read Becoming Stress Resistant, by Raymond B. Flannery.
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