Statistics show there are now more women than men in the workforce. The historically white, male hierarchal model has evolved over time, recognizing that women have the skills needed to reach the top of an organization. But as companies face globalization and rapid change, they need a more nimble, flexible model to compete. When you examine the traditional leadership model, teams functioned primarily based on top down pecking order. Today, the weakening of this power-driven model is leading to a new workplace order – one in which women excel.

This may be due in part to the fact that women are driven less by financial and career prospects than men, according to a Pulse on Leaders study by PDI Ninth House. Women, instead, place a higher value on work that gives them a sense of personal fulfillment and contribution in a friendly environment.

But the new workplace order isn’t just about men vs. women, it’s about relationships. A relationship-driven leader empowers others and considers empathy essential to creating strong, productive teams. This type of leader also views decision-making through a relationship-focused lens vs. a power or title-based perspective.

As baby boomers retire and the Millennial Generation enters the workforce, leaders must adapt to this changing landscape or risk losing high-potential employees. Younger workers overwhelmingly prefer relationship-driven leaders and a sense of community. They challenge the traditional model because they value relationships and leaders who respect their ideas and perspective and consult them on decisions. Managing effective teams in this environment requires leaders to understand this productivity-impacting trend and adjust accordingly.

Title-Driven vs. Relationship-Driven Leaders

Traditionally, companies viewed people that made decisions objectively as having strong leadership potential. These title-driven leaders typically take an analytical approach to problem-solving to find a fair, rational solution. This style of leader often excels at making logical decisions and then works tirelessly to implement and analyze the results. However, they can come across as overly critical and may not realize when their questions or decisions alienate others.

In contrast, relationship-driven leaders are more empathetic, patient and tolerant. They approach decision-making subjectively, using personal values as a guide and examining how each option will impact others. They are approachable, strive for harmony among their employees and work to build consensus and trust. They also admit when they’re wrong and seek constructive criticism. Yet, while they are adept at listening and forging personal connections, they can sometimes appear too concerned about what others think or too weak to make tough decisions.

Take the example of a general counsel who successfully led a group for years before hiring a vice president to help manage a growing workload. Because this leader spent his career in the traditional model, he found it difficult to delegate work to the new vice president. The issue was not about power, but an inability to let go and trust the new vice president to complete the work well. If the general counsel had formed a stronger personal connection with the vice president and built trust based on that relationship, he could have empowered the vice president instead of constraining her performance.

While each leadership style has strengths and potential pitfalls, the relationship-driven approach is becoming the clear preference within modern workplaces.

Best Practices for Adopting a Relationship-Driven Approach

While leaders can’t change their innate personalities, they can change their behavior. Adopting these best practice behaviors will enable leaders to be more effective in an increasingly diverse workplace.

  1. Open yourself to different viewpoints. Good leaders ensure everyone has a voice. Solicit employees’ perspectives on how to address a new challenge or opportunity. Keep an open mind and consider new, creative ideas as well as traditional options. Look at the big picture before dismissing any idea. Once you’ve evaluated the options and made your decision, share your selection criteria with employees so they know you’ve heard and respect their opinions.
  2. Balance empathy with strong decision-making. Being open to new ideas doesn’t mean you should make all decisions based on consensus. Well-rounded, relationship-driven leaders employ a versatile skill set to effectively manage individuals and groups. Sometimes, consensus-building will generate the best outcome while other times you must tackle tough issues with decisions that won’t please everyone. Striking the right balance isn’t easy, but coaching can help leaders master this skill and become comfortable with seeking input while still making unpopular decisions when needed.
  3. Collaborate on issues management. When a project doesn’t go well, how do you respond? Do you tell employees exactly what they did wrong and how to do it correctly in the future? Or do you allow the employee to take the lead in the debrief? While it takes more time, relationship-driven leaders tactfully ask employees what they think happened in a situation and how they’d approach it differently the next time. Both approaches result in improvement plans, but the latter validates the employee’s viewpoint and deepens his or her relationship with the leader. In times of organizational stress, a relationship-driven approach also minimizes negative reactions by asking, not ordering, employees to adjust their actions.
  4. Champion employee development. Historically, companies assessed employee performance, identified high-potential employees and focused on grooming top performers for the next level. Relationship-driven leaders strive to develop each of their employees, learning their career aspirations, providing timely feedback and helping them achieve their goals. Meet with your employees regularly to discuss what’s working and what’s not, and identify new challenges and training opportunities. This advocacy for employee development also enhances your own interpersonal skills – a critical partner to your business acumen.
  5. Don’t mistake silence for agreement. Just because no one questioned your latest decision doesn’t automatically mean your team supports it. Silence also can signal resistance, so check in with employees regularly to find out if implementing your decisions has been a positive experience. If not, use that feedback to adjust the process and guide future decision-making.

Empathy and respect are like oil in the wheels of machinery, and well-oiled machines work better. Similarly, successful leaders know organizations can only achieve high performance through employee development and empowerment. By adopting a relationship-driven approach, leaders can earn the trust and confidence of an increasingly diverse workforce and improve long-term retention.