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Do you need to improve your effectiveness as a leader? Start with how you build and sustain relationships.

Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a schoolteacher, relationship skills matter a lot. In fact, relationship-building skills are among the top leadership competencies that leaders need.

Leaders who are skilled at building and maintaining relationships share several traits. Here’s what many effective leaders have in common in terms of relationship skills:

  1. A leader must be self-aware. Boosting your self-awareness includes knowing your strengths and weaknesses, but also the impact that your behavior has on others. For example, say a small business owner takes pride in personally managing client relationships. She also realizes that her hands-on style can frustrate her staff by creating the appearance that she doesn’t trust or appreciate them. By taking into account the impact of her behavior, the business owner can adjust how she relates to her clients and employees.
  2. An effective leader should be willing to delegate important tasks and decision making. Besides being an efficient way to lead, delegating helps to build trust on your team and experience and confidence in others. It also forces leaders to give honest, consistent feedback and to motivate and reward people for their hard work. Think about the parent who teaches his kid to pick up after herself. While it may be slow going at first, eventually the child develops the skill and is able to help around the house.
  3. Skilled leaders must also have good interpersonal skills. They should be able to negotiate and handle work problems without alienating others. This requires understanding others’ perspectives and needs. Leaders with honed relationship skills develop rapport with all kinds of people. Have you ever known a school principal who is equally comfortable with students, parents, teaching staff, and school board? If so, you’ve seen people skills at their best.
  4. Effective leaders must have a participative management style. Strong leaders use effective listening skills and communication to involve others, build consensus, and influence decisions. Compare the styles of 2 city mayors, for example. One mayor is participative; the other autocratic. Initially, the mayor who values relationships and broad communication appears to be less effective than the more independent-minded mayor. But, as time passes, the participative mayor is able influence others to build support for key initiatives and is considered a good leader and skilled administrator. In contrast, the authoritarian mayor faces many political roadblocks and becomes highly controversial.

One other significant point — the importance of feedback. Giving effective feedback is one of the best ways leaders can improve their relationship skills. Feedback lets people know how they’re doing, reinforces goals, and encourages strong effort. When giving feedback, make sure to focus on a single message, being specific, and be sensitive. And remember to judge the behavior, not the person.

Being good at relationships isn’t just a personality trait; it’s a key leadership skill. And the good news for everyday leaders is that we can all improve.

Why Building Relationship Skills Matters

Relationship and people skills, and not merely job performance, are what separates a successful executive from the rest. In corporate terms, good relationships are gold. And there’s a demand for people who can build them.

In describing or evaluating unsuccessful managers, experts find that their inability to develop and maintain relationships is listed as their biggest weakness and the biggest hindrance to a company. Leaders who have weak relationship-building skills and lack interpersonal skills are at high risk of derailing in their careers.

Without solid relationships, a leader can have a hard time bringing a team together and getting a project accomplished. Collaboration is only an effective workplace tool if the people collaborating can get along.

Collaboration – and the relationships it builds – will help executives who are trying to adapt their management style to a changing global marketplace.

And relationships will become only more complex in the future. The leadership skills needed in the future include what was once referred to as the “soft skills” of the workplace.

Organizations must find a way to move relationship skills from an intangible spectrum of employee and executive assessment to one that’s higher on their requirement list. However, researchers are finding that those “soft” skills are what leads to actual influence in the office – and not just a title that implies influence. Those relationship strengths are what inspire employees to follow an executive and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Having that background is the only way a leader can be effectively decisive and resourceful.

In terms of success at the corporate ranks, those soft skills are actually pretty hard.

How to Build Relationship Skills

Surveys of executives from around the world show that relationship skills are in great demand, and so is the need to improve those skills and put them to use in a changing corporate culture. Fortunately, relationship skills are something that can be learned.

Sure, some people will have an intrinsic ability to build, develop, and maintain relationships. However, a successful executive — no matter how smart — can no longer hope knowledge and experience will offset lukewarm relationship and people skills.

The first step to building more effective relationships starts with being practical and assessing your own abilities. Start paying attention to how you interact with coworkers. Gauge your reactions to them, and take note of how they physically and verbally respond to you.

You can’t do that if you’re sequestered in your office, so be present. Make eye contact. If you’ve got people dispersed at other sites, make a visit; don’t just rely on the phone and email to build that relationship. Don’t wait for them to come to you. And if you’re limited to only on-screen communication, make sure your virtual communication is as effective as possible.

This first assessment will help you grasp your standing with your employees or coworkers. Once you’ve become more aware, start taking consistent steps to eliminate weak points and strengthen skills you already have.

Relationships don’t take place in a vacuum, nor do they start from scratch. Learn to relate to all kinds and levels of people within the organization. That helps a good, effective manager expand their view of the people who work for the company. Successful executives involve others, and it’s impossible to involve other people if there isn’t a connection to start with.

Relationships come from listening and sharing information. That happens in good times and in bad. Only by listening and getting direct information from team members can an executive involve those affected in any decisions or changes.

By listening, sharing, and expanding their corporate view, executives can be proactive in finding solutions. Good relationships are based on handling problems in a positive way. Even tough decisions can be made more palatable if delivered in a positive manner that doesn’t alienate others. The best managers learn to find common ground, and they know how to be diplomats.

Finally, the most practical relationship skill-building tool involves being realistic. Recognize that almost every decision or move comes with conflicting sets of circumstances. Good relationship skills can keep conflict and disagreement to a minimum.

And, simply because parties may conflict, that doesn’t mean an effective leader can’t work through the challenge, calm the conflict, and build a spirit of cooperation — thanks to their great relationship skills.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Upskill your team Help your organization drive forward these key innovation principles with custom leadership training tailored to to your organization’s challenges. Available topics include Collaboration & Teamwork, Conflict Management, Emotional Intelligence, Leading Virtual Teams, and more.

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