Leadership is a Relationship, Not a Transaction

October 12, 2023

I’m Sonja.
Leadership Specialist and Creator of The Expansion Practice. Also a travel enthusiast, dog lover, fanatic for all the books (on all the subjects), and an advocate for intuition.

I’ve had the privilege of working with many visionary leaders throughout the course of my career. They have been some of my favorite leadership clients, and some of the most difficult to work with. (Yes, you are. You know you are 😉)

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a CEO say they were dealing with employee engagement issues only to learn that their attempt to get to the bottom of them had been by way of what I call a ‘drive-by check-in’, which is exactly how it sounds.  

They would stroll through the open office space, literally remain in motion, as they asked their team how they were doing, what they needed, and other questions that required more than a one-word answer. They continued to move on to the next cubicle or public workspace, only to believe the platitudes they heard on their circuit.

“They said they were doing well. They didn’t need anything. I can’t figure out why there is still a problem.”

My response has always been the same: So, your less than 10 seconds with each employee in a public space fills you with confidence? The fact that there was no privacy, no rapport built, and no safety to speak of as you strolled through makes you believe they were telling you the full truth instead of merely trying to be professional and polite. Really?!

When we treat our interactions with those we’re leading (or anyone for that matter) as transactions, we get just that. A transaction. Not meaningful insight that can shed light on the problem at hand. Not buy-in or rapport and certainly not trust.

Transactions are 2-dimensional.

We also cannot forget that when we’re in a formal position of leadership, a very real power differential exists between us and those we’re leading. If we haven’t spent the time to engage with our people in meaningful ways, working collaboratively to create a healthy, team-oriented, open culture, our people will respond how they believe we want them to.

Do not underestimate the power that your signature on their paycheck wields.

When our team’s aim is to please us, we need to recognize this as an opportunity to develop a genuine relationship with them. That is the only way we can access the wealth and the depth of insight and intuition our teams bring to the table. If we don’t, we risk not only remaining disconnected from the real issues (and therefore their potential solutions), but we are also robbing our teams from growing, contributing, and becoming part of the overall success of the organization.

I want to acknowledge here that we are all human. When we’re overwhelmed or at our capacity, sometimes leaders don’t want to hear the truth. It becomes another problem they need to solve. They merely want to check this piece of ‘employee engagement’ off their never-ending to-do list. Building meaningful relationships takes time and many leaders don’t feel they have that available. Not a surprise given the unrealistic pace of our work and the demands on our time.

But the truth is,

“Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings,
or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage
ineffective and unproductive behavior.”
~ Brené Brown

In other cases, leaders are unequipped or unaware that they are operating in a transactional way with their people. They’re doing so because that is what they know. With new awareness comes an opportunity (you’ll start to see this is one of my favorite words) to engage in new, more meaningful ways.

A relationship-centric approach to leadership recognizes that leadership is not about issuing orders but about building meaningful connections with team members. Leadership becomes a partnership, where collaboration is central.

Let’s break down why this shift matters:

  • Employee Engagement and Motivation

When leaders invest in building genuine relationships with their team members, it fosters a sense of belonging and purpose. Employees are more likely to be engaged and motivated when they feel that their contributions matter, are valued, and their leaders genuinely care about their well-being. A positive leader-employee relationship can ignite enthusiasm and a sense of ownership in their work.

  • Enhanced Communication

In a transactional leadership model, communication is often top-down, with leaders dictating instructions and expecting compliance. In a relationship-centric approach, communication is two-way and open. Leaders actively listen to their team members – both to what is being said, and what is not – they seek their input and encourage discussion. This fosters an open culture of transparency, trust, and innovation.

  • Adaptability and Resilience

In a rapidly changing business environment, adaptability and resilience are critical. Relationship-centric leaders are better equipped to navigate uncertainty and change because they have strong bonds with their team members. These relationships enable trust and collaboration, making it easier to pivot and adapt to new challenges.

  • Employee Development

Leaders who view their roles as relationship builders are more likely to invest in the growth and development of their team members. They recognize the benefits of providing mentorship, coaching, and opportunities for ongoing skill-building. This not only benefits individual employees but also strengthens the entire organization.

  • Long-Term Success

Relationship-centric leaders focus on long-term success rather than short-term gains. Leaders who prioritize relationships understand that sustainable success depends on the well-being and development of their team members. This approach leads to higher employee retention rates and overall organizational resilience.

  • Employee Well-Being

Leaders who view their roles as relationship builders are more attuned to the well-being of their team members. They are more likely to recognize signs of burnout, stress, or dissatisfaction – both in themselves and their employees – and take proactive measures to address these issues. This results in a healthier and more productive work environment.

“If we want people to speak to us honestly, we must be willing to honestly listen.” 
~ Simon Sinek

Given the demands placed on leaders today, we cannot afford to remain in a transactional exchange of authority and obedience. By adopting a relationship-centric approach to leadership, we have the power to unlock the incredible potential that already exists within our organizations. By doing so, we foster greater employee engagement and motivation and are better equipped to navigate and overcome the complexities of today’s business landscape with resilience and adaptability.

Leadership is a relationship and recognizing this fundamental shift can make all the difference in the success or failure of our mission-driven organizational mandates.

Add a comment
+ show Comments
- Hide Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Don't Miss a Thing

Join a community of embodied leaders who are expanding beyond their comfort zone, meeting their limiting beliefs, and transforming the way we lead. By signing up and joining the community, you'll be first to learn about what we're creating to support you on that path, along with special offerings only you can access. 


Follow along and stay up to date on all the things we're creating for you.