04 Sep

What is on the agenda for Relational Leadership? Values and skills for navigating relational risk

Two business men shaking hands at international business meeting.

Written by Marie-Anne Chidiac and Sally Denham-Vaughan from Relational Change, an organisation that promotes a relational approach in all walks of life.

In the April issue of this blog, Robert Hall, one of the speakers at the rapidly approaching Relational Thinking International Conference, introduced the topic of Relational Leadership, reminding us that if you can get “the right WHO” in a leadership position, the agenda of “WHAT”, (direction, strategy), will emerge in a qualitatively different, and urgently needed, way: a way that is, we believe, much more aligned with a sustainable future for our planet.

At Relational Change, we believe this change in focus from tasks first to people first cannot come quickly enough if we are to genuinely develop our leadership capacity and gain more understanding of what motivates and sustains people. Indeed, our relational approach to coaching and consulting work was prompted by the experience of trying to support organisations where people were floundering due to unrealistic, unsustainable, task-driven leadership practices that viewed staff as a particularly tricky part of the operational chain: unpredictable, emotional and prone to erratic behaviour according to changing cultures and contexts!

For example, in health care, we found numerous examples of staff, particularly senior staff, ignoring ‘evidence-based’ guidelines, not because they didn’t know or understand the guidelines, but because they believed that the “evidence” did not necessarily apply to the specific case or context. By doing this, these staff knowingly put themselves in a risky situation, but nonetheless, they strongly believed this was the ‘right’ thing to do. On closer inquiry, all these staff could cite many important reasons that led them to deviate from the guidelines, with these reasons focussed on the specific relationships, culture and contexts.

Similarly, in his book ‘Adapt’, Tim Harford cites numerous examples of leaders from a wide range of backgrounds, (including government, the American Army, Corporate Business and Education), ‘deviating’ from pre-agreed plans and strategies in favour of responding to the immediate relational context. Vitally he demonstrates that all these leaders needed to deviate, in order to deliver a successful, safe and appropriate outcome.

But, we are not advocating an anarchic anything goes/do what feels right, sloppiness.  Design, plans and pre-agreements give us a sense that we have a clear vision of the way forward, the skills to meet demand and reassuringly, a sense of control and agreement. When problems come in the complex shape and size of climate change, wealth inequity, migration and ever growing demands for health care, (to name a few), some sense of a way through is essential.

So we would want to highlight what is often, and unhelpfully we believe, seen as a tension between the ‘soft/people’ focussed aspects of leadership, and the need for clarity, transparency, focus and task attainment at work. We believe this polarisation is misguided; ‘relational’ in our book implies a contextually sensitive approach that recognises our profound inter-connection and inter-dependence. Not an approach where we are focussed on being ‘nice’ to each other, but one that recognises that our relationship with both the people and environment around us leads directly to the emergence of behaviour in the moment. This is what we saw happening in our health care situations and large global challenges will demand ever more complex collaborations that appreciate why people are behaving in these “unpredictable, deviant and erratic” ways.

Sadly, most leadership trainings do not emphasise the extent of personal development required for a leader to manage the complexity of such a relational approach. Boundaries can become less clear and contemporary leadership requires skills in ‘how to be’, how to respond and how to navigate the range of relational risks that are revealed through the necessary numerous collaborations.

At Relational Change, our theory and experience is that competence in the Relational approach is achieved by attending to three main, interconnected frameworks involving self, other and the situation, (Denham-Vaughan & Chidiac 2013, Clark et. al. 2014). Accordingly we have evolved our “SOS” model, which includes the three domains and also has global recognition as a call for assistance: lone heros’ are unlikely to survive!  Developing insight and skills in each of these three domains develops leaders with genuine Presence; able to use themselves and their relationships to leverage maximum effect in a range of challenging situations.

In our experience of coaching and consulting, we observe that being “relational” as a leader/manager requires tough skills of personal awareness, sensitivity to context and emotional attunement with others. Equally important are skills in recognising the relational risks arising from these closer collaborations and fuzzier boundaries, and being able to dialogue authentically about these in order to support and sustain change.

References:

Clark, M. Denham-Vaughan, S and Chidiac, (2014) M-A. “A relational perspective on public sector leadership and management”, The International Journal of Leadership in Public Services, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 4-16.

Denham-Vaughan, S. “The Liminal Space and Twelve Action Practices for Gracious Living”, British Gestalt Journal, (2010), 19, (2), 34-45

Denham-Vaughan, S. and Chidiac, M-A. “SOS: A relational orientation towards social inclusion”. (2013), Mental Health and Social Inclusion, 17, (2), 100-107

Harford, T. “Adapt”, (2011), Little, Brown, London UK.

 

29 May

Relational dysfunction: a silent killer

28.5 blog image

“We never manage to do what we intend to do as an organisation.”

“Our strategy looks good on paper but we never manage to actually make it happen.”

We are all familiar with organisations that are no longer able to implement their strategy or deliver their plan. In some cases, it has always been a struggle for them. For others, it just seems to be getting harder. Organisations often look for external explanations. Or perhaps they have tried changing key personnel to inject fresh vision. Cutting staff and tightening up inefficient practices is another common approach. Introducing new systems and performance improvement programmes will usually be attempted.

Yet for some, the ability to implement strategy remains elusive.

From our relational perspective, there are clear signs that there is something dysfunctional going on inside the body corporate. Yet, we meet many leaders who appear to be in denial.

“It can’t be a relational problem because people aren’t actually shouting at each other.”

“Checking whether there are relational issues will only give us bad publicity and won’t solve anything.”

“Let’s keep trying these other things and wait and see; maybe the problem will solve itself.”

Individual relational issues within or between organisations are usually about personality clashes or personal chemistry. Such personal issues are very visible and tend to get addressed (by changing the people or avoiding each other). Organisational relational issues are more insidious and pernicious and more easily ignored. Just as geographic proximity can influence how well two teams work together, relational proximity is a key ingredient of a smoothly functioning organisation.

But there is more to relational proximity than geography. Unbalanced patterns of influence and communication can trigger misalignment, causing people to work at cross-purposes. Lack of mutual knowledge and irregular periods of contact can reduce momentum and cause people to despair of effective change. All of these give a sense of relational distance.

It is not only possible to clearly identify where such issues are occurring, it is also possible to do something about them.

Whilst basic business processes and the usual measures of activity in an organisation might appear to be working normally, core relational issues may be silently hampering its ability to deliver. A sound strategic plan will include an understanding and assessment of relational dynamics, enabling you to deal with organisational silent killers before they take hold.

This article was originally published by Renuma, one of our member organisations, and is republished here with their permission.