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Building Relationships to Build Understanding 

Leadership, Mental Health

Written by Erica Naccarato 

While being an effective leader has not always centered around building effective relationships with direct reports, the dawn of this practice was eventuated over the last two decades, particularly during the fall of the traditional command-and-control leadership style. Many coaches and leaders are encouraged to build strong working relationships with their team to build trust, and therefore be more productive, efficient, and attend to the core needs of employees. However, a specific and very intentional aspect of building productive working relationships can be based around a strong personal understanding of your team members’ life stories, experiences, and general upbringing.

Drawing back to the ol’ nature vs. nurture argument, a part of what informs our daily habits, tendencies, and preferences is our hard wired DNA. The other part is how that DNA has interacted with the environment over the years. I’ve spent a large part of my life coaching and being part of teams, and only over the past few years have I been paid professionally to manage and lead others. Being a naturally nosey and chummy person (hence my background in psychology), my leadership style tends to be very personal. I have a lot of conversations with team members in which I take interest in their lives: where they grew up, how they met their partner, how their birth order has impacted them, what their parents were like, etc. I’ve found that simply from spending time on somewhat “deep” topics, I’ve naturally been able to piece together how these life experiences have informed the way in which they perform in our workplace today. For example, if my team member is the oldest sibling in their family (bonus points if they are the oldest sister), there is a likelihood that they possess higher feelings of anxiousness around their achievements, a strong sense of self organization, and perhaps the burden of responsibility in most situations (i.e. Oldest Child Syndrome). Another key indicator of achievement anxiety and perfectionism is being a first-generation student, and/or a child of immigrant parents. There is no need to pry into these personal topics, however, a mental note of consideration for these facts can go a long way.

Why is it important to know these things? It’s made me a better coach and a better leader, and overall has created a mutually enjoyable professional experience for both myself and my direct reports. Through knowing some fundamentally impactful pieces of information about my team members’ life experiences, I am able to better understand them, better attend to their needs, and coach them in ways that resonate with them. Knowing that my young direct report carries an internal burden of pressure from her parents to succeed will inform the way I coach her through a difficult project, which will be different from the way I coach the former competitive athlete on my team, whom I know needs some external pressure from me.

Many may fear becoming too “chummy” with the people they work with. I personally fear that we’ve strayed away from humanizing working relationships. I’m not encouraging anyone to cross professional boundaries, or make anyone uncomfortable. However, I do encourage the practice of viewing team members as human beings with complex needs, and to create a sense of community and mutual fulfillment in the workplace through trust and personal understanding.

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