Team Leadership- Caring for Individuals versus Relationship

Posted on December 21, 2009


Have you ever had to face a dilemma between caring for someone versus caring for your relationship with him or her? I believe that if you haven’t, will surely to have to confront this problem at some point in your leadership journey. The leadership lesson of caring for your subordinates as opposed to caring for your relationship with them will be discussed here with the intention to gear you up in preparation for the day you have to make this decision.

Allow me to recount my first encounter with this dilemma. It was right at the beginning of my leadership journey, where I first was first entrusted with a team in the security line. My immediate predecessor who filled this position, Bennett, was rather mild in character and chose to play the ‘nice guy’. As he cared tremendously about the close relationship he had with his team, Bennett refused to make tough calls that will dissatisfy the members and potentially jeopardise their relationship. He was blinded by the affection he had with his colleagues, and this resulted in him massively compromising work standards. Bennett was so incapable of action that even when the team members came to him to redress their grievances with other members, he would leave them to solve their own problems as taking action would potentially mean upsetting certain members.

See the problem here? By being a ‘Yes-man’, Bennett effectively compromised the standards of work of his team as he’d rather give in to the team’s requests than hold firm to his set standards. This also eventually led to further repercussions as the team went down a slippery slope of continual declining standards. Bennett also disposed of his authority as the leader when his subordinates decided that he was incapable of action and would not be of help redressing their grievances. Seeking nothing but to protect relationships, Bennett was also unwilling to disagree with his peers and superiors, resulting in several occasions where there were no one to stand up for his subordinates.

So as Bennett’s successor, I was placed in a tough position on whether to continue selling my subordinates out and compromising standards, or stand up for my subordinates but risk hurting our relationship. Naturally, after being used to Bennett’s leadership, or lack of it, my team were watching my directions closely, expecting me to follow Bennett’s footsteps, becoming a friendly but powerless leader. It would be easy for me to continue this legacy and snowball the problems to my successor in time to come, as the team certainly would enjoy another easy going boss with low standards and not blame me for that. What, however, spurred me to make the right decision as opposed to the easy one was my belief that if I truly cared for my subordinates, I would NOT shortchange them of an effective and upright leader, giving them less than they deserve, even if it means having them to dislike me.

As such, I began to make some tough decisions to end unrightful practices, such as biasness towards a minority few members and bullying less outspoken members into taking a larger share of duty. I preached meritocracy and fairness, as opposed to the ‘relationship-solves-all-problems’ mindset. Initially, I was resented for my decision, as many members felt that I was out to make life difficult for everyone. However, as time passed, my sincerity showed as the team began to see how I would not compromise my standards and stood up for every single member of the team, right to the very end.

Moral of the story? Caring for relationships over individuals may make your team like you, but they certainly would not respect you as their leader. A leader who cares for relationship over individuals is, in fact, selfish as he’d rather enjoy the popularity vote than be there for those who need him. In the long run, he’s certain to loose his authority and become powerless as a leader, and when he finally decides that enough is enough, it’d be way too late.

If you ever face such a scenario, bear in mind that your subordinates, who willingly follow your leadership, deserves none but the best from you. May your good judgment bring success to your team always.

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