How strong are your work relationships?

Strong relationships are built on trust, respect and mutual support. The world’s best teams (whether in the arena or the boardroom) are built on those qualities.

So how do you cultivate great work relationships?

Team-building events will get you off to a good headstart but it’s really about how you approach everyday interactions.

Here are some practical ways to build strong work relationships:

Listen to understand, not to reply. This is almost like our # 1 rule. When someone talks to you, even if you disagree with what they’re saying, don’t plan your response – rather, seek to really understand where they’re coming from. Seek to be curious and truly understand what is driving their issue for them. When you do reply, try to ask a question to understand more deeply.

When you’re upset with someone, talk to that person and not to others. Don’t triangulate or gossip. While it’s not easy to approach someone when they’ve upset you, it is possible to turn difficult conversations into essential conversations.

Triangulation is very common and it is an absolute killer of relationships and organizations. If you’re not familiar with it, triangulation is when I’m angry/frustrated/annoyed with Dave but instead of talking to Dave about it, I go to my colleague Sue and say, “Can you believe Dave?!? That’s a horrible idea he wants us to implement… etcetera, etcetera.” The only thing worse is when Sue chimes in, “Oh, I know – Dave’s always like that…”

Gossip is likewise toxic behaviour. Even if you think you can defend that what you’re saying is true, gossiping is malicious spreading of stories or rumours about someone else (whether true, or not, they’re malicious). If it needs to be said, say it to the person it concerns and not to others.

Build Stronger Teams

Be open and get to know your peers and staff. This is more than just chatting about the weather and beyond just meetings in the boardroom because we build stronger teams by developing relationships. Grab a coffee one-on-one once in a while, ask them about their life, and share a bit about yours.

Share your knowledge and support the work of your team members. There will be times that you can mentor or guide, and other times that the COACH Approach to leadership encourages and develops the best qualities of your team members.

And while you’re at it, share more of yourself in meetings too. Explain WHY you feel strongly about something. Share why it’s important to you even if others don’t see it. Regardless of the final decision, people who get to know you better will trust you more.

Focus on the issues and ideas, not the personality, and don’t shy away from conflict. A strong team can (and should) have lots of conflict around ideas. The only way to bring out the best, and to overcome the worst, is to have lots of debate about it before proceeding. Conflict around ideas is, of course, different than conflict between personalities.

Being comfortable with healthy conflict requires a lot of trust among team members because they have to know that you’re attacking the idea, not them. They also need to be confident that your goal is to find the best solutions for the organization – not the solution that makes you look good and not the solution that makes your division successful – but the best idea for the organization.

Better Communication

Work on your Emotional Intelligence – start with empathy. Presume good intent. Consider the world from the other person’s perspective – most people aren’t trying to simply be difficult – they’re trying to achieve something that’s important to them which may not be at all important or even evident to you. There are many ways you can boost your emotional intelligence in leadership.

Practice humility and gratitude. No one wants to work with a know-it-all. Pretending to always have the answers or to look perfect and unfailing not only sets you up for impostor syndrome when you inevitably struggle with something, it also builds a culture of hiding mistakes and mistrust. Fostering a sense of gratitude benefits you and your team. Unsure how to show gratitude? There are many ways to thank your team (and they work for special occasions or ordinary days!) and making journaling part of your routine is a way to reflect on your own gratitude (and it’s one leadership habit we see reap rewards over and over for our clients).

Have clear expectations. Identify your own needs – what is it you value in colleagues? What are you looking for in peers and staff? Share those needs in a kind and caring way so people know what you want from them. And, be prepared to hear different needs from them.

Learn to give feedback (or feedforward!). Difficult conversations can help us move forward when we know how to have better conversations about problems or issues. Sometimes we need to use a feedforward approach to help team members improve – without destroying their motivation or rattling their self-confidence.

Learn to take feedback. As the old saying goes, don’t dish it out if you can’t take it! Good leaders are able to handle criticism and recognize that criticism is actually a good opportunity to listen.

The better communication is among you and your team, the stronger your work relationships will be and strong teams can accomplish great things together.

The Coach’s Questions:

Who do you need a better relationship with? What are you willing to do to try to strengthen work relationships? What might you most need to work on? What can you do today?

Are you a “boss” or a “leader”?

Would you say you are a boss or a leader?

Let’s start with definitions: A boss has a position of authority and can exercise power, but a leader has the ability to manage people well and inspire them to action.

We recently discussed signs you’re ready to be a leader (and a few signs you’re not!). A key takeaway is that just because someone is in a position of authorityno matter how great the responsibility or grand the titledoesn’t mean that person is an effective leader. And, we’ve likely all seen the reverse hold true as wellsomeone who is clearly a leader, without a title or any direct authority.

So what’s the distinction and how can you be the leader even if you’re also the boss?

Understanding human motivation and leadership

When we delve into the difference between being a boss or being a leader, it really comes down to motivation.

If you’ve ever done a psychology or sociology course, you’re likely very familiar with American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Even though he presented his theory in a paper in the early 1940s, Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is still used today as a foundational framework in sociology, psychology and management theory.

To summarize, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is typically presented as a pyramid, divided into levels. Originally, his theory was that humans must have the needs met at each level before they can move to the next level of the pyramid. Today scholars interpret this a little less rigidly, but the idea that the basic levels must be met before anyone can be motivated to pursue the higher level needs remains.

So, if our physiological needs (hunger, thirst) are met at the lowest level, we can be motivated to safety needs (feeling safe and secure). From there, we can progress up to the third level of social needs (feeling a sense of belonging and forming relationships with family and friends), then to the fourth level of self-esteem needs (how you evaluate your own self worth and feel good about yourself), to the fifth level of self-actualization (when you realize your full potential).

What does Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have to do with being a boss or being a leader?

Motivation for a boss versus a leader

Let’s check the motivation for a boss who is motivated by having power over others (and I’m sure all of us can think of examples of bosses motivated purely for power). A desire for power is entrenched in the safety level of the hierarchy of needs, which is second to the bottom of the pyramid.

Why? Seeking power is a way to have control over resourceshuman, financial and otherwise. Power can corrupt, as we all know. Someone who seeks power to fulfill the higher personal need of self-esteem might offer or withhold resources to influence others for personal gain rather than for the greater good.

If we put ourselves into the mindset of someone whose motivation is to attain power rather than to assume a leadership role, it’s clear that a power-seeker is not typically thinking about what is good for the group. Someone stuck here may not be able to see other people’s perspectives or likely considers the team members subordinates.

Truly effective leaders are not motivated by power, but rather to achieve goals. This is true of a business leader, the leader of a group or even the leader of a country.

Someone who aspires to true leadership will have met the basic needs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, feel secure in belonging, have formed healthy relationships and have good self-esteem (and a well-developed executive presence!). An effective leader will find motivation at the fifth level of the hierarchy of needs – self-actualization and realizing full potential.

Leadership with this motivation is about doing better, not being powerful. This is how aspirational leaders rally people to coordinate and achieve something individually or together. They establish and prioritize goals based on doing what is best for the success of the group and then motivate and build engagement around those goals.

How power differs from leadership

Now that we’ve considered the motivational differences between a boss and a leader, let’s consider how power is different than leadership:

How it is achieved:

Power can be assigned or granted. Someone in a powerful position might not have credibility or trust, but can hold a position of authority with power over others and resources.

Leadership is a collection of character attributes and skills, with group members who believe in a credible leader they are willing to follow. In other words, leadership is earned rather than granted.

How it is put into action:

Power is about having the right or permission to exercise authority. For example, a judge can decide the fate of a criminal because of holding a judicial position. Power is exercised by issuing orders or commands.

Leadership is having the ability to rally individuals or a group to achieve something. It’s more complex than just having authority; leadership is being able to motivate others to work toward a vision while coaching team members to do their best. Leaders inspire others to action.

What is required:

Power does not require leadership. In other words, someone can be in power, but not be a leader.

Conversely, all leaders need to have some form of power to be effective.

How a boss can become a leader

Many times I meet folks who have been promoted to a leadership role because they were high performers, not because they were exceptional leaders.

We get requests for one-to-one coaching when these managers or directors aren’t enjoying their work, or realize that they need more tools to understand and motivate their team members.

Fortunately, it’s possible to decide what kind of leader you want to be and work toward learning the skills to support your leadership so you can inspire your team to strive, work together and achieve goals.

Here’s how you can move from being a boss to being a leader:

Lead by example: You could sit closed up in your office and give orders and assignments (like a boss!). But to be a leader, it’s time to get those boots on the ground, as they say, and work with your team to set performance goals that are aligned with company goals. Then, help your team members achieve their goals (by coaching them, not by being a micromanager!).

Share your knowledge: Some bosses like to keep what they do secret and mysterious (power!), perhaps because they are afraid of being usurped. In reality, if you share what you know and develop the skills of your team members, you will benefit from their strengths as you empower them to do better. There are many times that you can build a stronger team with the COACH Approach to leadership.

Give credit where credit is due: Acknowledge, thank and share the credit with your team members. Leaders who know how to communicate effectively will understand that different people appreciate different forms of recognition and they will build trust through being authentic whether they’re saying sorry, taking responsibility or showing gratitude.

Solicit feedback: Good leaders don’t just give feedback, they seek input into their own abilities and can handle criticism. They are open to hearing from others and they know how to make their best decisions based on the best information available.

Build relationships: When a leader enjoys working with people, it shows. There are myriad ways to build stronger teams by developing relationships. It takes time, but it pays dividends when there is respect and a human connection – and confidence in your leadership and authority.

If you want to be more than a boss with a title, you can learn ways to be a more effective leader. Our COACH Approach to Leading and Managing workshop is one way to introduce a coaching culture throughout your organization and amplify success for all your leaders (and your bosses!).

The Coach’s Questions

Of our five suggestions above, which one do you think would have the biggest impact in making you even more of a leader? What could you do, this week, to start making that happen?


COACH Approach Journal

COACH Approach Journal


If a COACH Approach is something you think will be beneficial, check out our COACH Approach Journal to help you get started.