Main content

Create inclusive cultures with relational leadership

Karen Mangia and Mack Fogelson Profile picture for user Karen Mangia and Mack Fogelson December 13, 2021
In the second part of this series from Salesforce, Karen Mangia and Mack Fogelson explore what it means to be an effective relational leader and create inclusive an culture.

Diversity And Inclusion. Business Employment Leadership. People Silhouettes © Andrey_Popov - Shutterstock
(© Andrey_Popov - Shutterstock)

We're discovering together that fixing what's broken in our organizations requires courage. Especially to strengthen the foundation that supports greater inclusivity.

In the first of our three-part series, we shared how to craft a strategy that sets us up to do our best work – no matter where we happen to be doing that work – with the 4Ws Framework.

As the world races to reconstruct work, and the power dynamic between employers and employees continues to shift, leaders are being asked to shoulder heavy burdens:

  • Motivate a burned out and depleted workforce amidst the Great Re-evaluation.

  • Build a shared purpose across a diverse and distributed workforce.

  • Provide visibility, clarity, and a path forward through the unprecedented uncertainty.

  • Advocate for and role model consistent work/life boundaries at a time when we are working more than ever.

  • Emotionally support those around us who desire more connection, belonging, and trust.

For the first time in our lifetimes, organizations are beginning to understand the gravity of – and invest deeply in – the mental and behavioral health of their employees. And employees are sending signals that caring cultures based on transparency, trust, and empathy are the attributes that matter most.

As a result, many of us are asking, how do we become effective leaders now? And more importantly, what are the skills, practices, and support required for leaders and teams to foster trust, innovation, creativity, and collaboration, while taking the best care of ourselves and each other?

The skills and practices of a relational leader

In an attempt to separate our personal lives from our work lives, many of us have developed a compartmentalized style of leadership – a transactional method of leading – that minimizes emotional investment. Traditional, transactional leadership tells us to work towards outputs. Steer only with quantitative data and numbers. Follow the rules and processes, drive for compliance, and center everything we do around results.

Over the years, we've opted to engineer vulnerability and emotion out of work. We've designed out the integral elements employees want designed in. The very elements that create connection and belonging, and foster a safe environment for our employees to bring innovation, problem solving, creativity, trust, resilience, equity, and inclusion into work.

In a conversation about inclusivity at work, Aiko Bethea – a former litigator and attorney who now coaches leaders and organizations to remove the internal and external barriers to inclusion - shares: "it's not that [relational] leadership excludes're just making it much more holistic and you're centering around people instead of just numbers and sanitized data." Relational leadership is vital to the monumental shifts required in our organizations to support diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultures, and innovate into the future.

Relational leaders are three-dimensional because they focus on their relationship with themselves, their relationship with the people they influence and lead, and leverage those relationships to shape operations that result in equitable systems.

1. Our relationship with ourselves

Uncertainty and complexity build and exacerbate (often untrue) stories that come from our greatest fears and inadequacies.

When we don't have the skills or practices to process our stories, they get in the way of us showing up as our best selves and working toward common outcomes. We focus on solving the wrong problems, fail to make thoughtful decisions, and waste precious time and energy being nice rather than honest, clear, fierce, and kind.

Uncertain and complex environments require emotional agility. As relational leaders, we honor our relationship with ourselves so we can give the best to the people we influence and lead. We practice self-inquiry, tend to our emotions, examine our stories, manage our energy, and build resilience, self-compassion, and reserves. If we want to show others they are seen and valued, we know we have to value ourselves first.

Making the shift from transactional to relational leadership starts with asking, what are the signs I've disregarded my own values and boundaries, making it harder to manage my reactions and emotions? How will I take care of my health and well-being so I can lead from a place of service and strength?

2. Our relationship with the people we influence and lead

Relational leaders create environments of connection and trust where our efforts are centered around the human and the conditions that support us in delivering our proudest and most innovative work.

Relational leaders create these conditions by making space in our operating rhythms for brave and vulnerable moments. Moments where we can share a tension causing an impasse. Acknowledge a mistake. Ask for perspective because we're struggling to find the way forward. Or admit frustration is really hiding the hurt, disappointment, and shame of failure.

With relational leadership, we can ask our teams, what are the conditions we need to foster connection, collaboration, and innovation? Where can we repurpose space to name fears and process tensions? What are the difficult conversations we're avoiding that are sabotaging trust?

3. Shaping operations that result in equitable systems

The systems we use to operate and do our work often get in the way of doing our best work. Relational leaders are curious about the signals we're getting from our systems because they indicate what's working, what's not, and the diverse perspectives needed to explore what's possible.

Rather than building pathways around our systems, relational leaders brave the hard conversations to clear the blocks. They notice when systems are inadequate and inequitable. They slow down and work with leaders and teams to craft small experiments that reshape systems and open up the flow toward desired outcomes.

As relational leaders, we can work with our teams and ask, where are we bumping up against the same tensions over and over? What could we practice for a short time to learn and shift the system? What behaviors do we want and do our systems support these outcomes?

Through relational leadership, we can create inclusive cultures. Inspiring teams to do their best work begins with revisiting what matters most – the project or the person. Which do you prefer to be your leadership legacy?

A grey colored placeholder image