Sherri Malouf: ‘Relationships drive everything that happens in an organization.’

Feb 10, 2022

7 mins

Sherri Malouf: ‘Relationships drive everything that happens in an organization.’
Rose Costello


Being a strong leader is important in these tumultuous times. Yet, equally important is the relationship between leaders and their followers as it affects every aspect of our work life. So what can you do to make sure everything is in good order?

How to be a great leader is a popular topic in books on management. Yet little research focuses on the relationship between leaders and their direct reports, even though the quality of this exchange is essential for a healthy working environment. That’s a mistake, according to Dr Sherri Malouf, the chair and principal of the corporate consultancy Situation Management Systems Inc. “Relationships drive everything that happens in an organization, be it good or bad,” she says. “All decisions spring from relationships, as does the culture of the organization.”

Malouf, who holds a PhD in human development from Fielding Graduate University and a MPhil in management research from the University of Bath in the UK, says that her biggest challenge has been to write about what can be felt but not seen. We all have unconscious beliefs about how the leader-follower relationship should be, but we may not know the degree to which these affect that relationship,” she says. “The next time a boss or follower upsets you, look at your assumptions about the person or the situation. Bringing unconscious beliefs to the surface and letting go of those that don’t serve you should be a quest for all of us.”

Her book Science and the Leader-Follower Relationship shows how to stand back, look at this exchange in a logical way, and take steps to improve its quality. Malouf draws on her research and also on experience with clients such as Pfizer, Chevron, Estee Lauder, MIT Lincoln Labs and Harvard Business School. That’s not to say that this topic is only for big organizations. “All leaders and all followers need to be aware of how critical this relationship is to the success of the organization,” she says. Consider the ramifications if a critical client relationship is in trouble and the follower has vital face-saving information, but is not sharing it with their boss because they do not like him or her. This is not a far-fetched scenario and is likely very common.”

As a result of her research, she created a method of thinking about organizational relationships called the Implicit Social Elements: trust, fairness, self-control, empathy, reciprocity, status and respect. “After a great deal of research, reading, and thinking, it became clear that the key factors that affect a healthy leader-follower relationship (such as trust and respect) involve using common sense,” she says, adding that all the elements are important.

Most people don’t understand that this is a forced social relationship, according to Malouf. “What do I mean by that? We may not choose to associate with the people we work with and only associate with them because of work,” she says. “Therefore, we need to be more deliberate about developing and maintaining those relationships. Otherwise, we are driven by our unconscious beliefs about people versus creating a healthy functioning work relationship.

Both parties share responsibility for the quality of the relationship. “Can a leader make it easier for followers to discuss their needs? Of course, but if you have a particularly gruesome follower, who constantly competes with their boss, it doesn’t mean that the relationship will improve,” she says. “As the old adage goes, it takes two to tango.”

Top tips for a great leader-follower relationship

The secret to making this relationship work is to think it through, she explains. “Don’t take your relationships for granted. You can have a good relationship and get things done using just some of the seven Implicit Social Elements,” she says, adding that it won’t be enough to weather tough times. For example, if you have reciprocity, self-control and status, you can create a productive working relationship. “Will it stand up to a bad storm? Maybe not,” she says. “These three elements are the minimum to get by in peacetime. We spend a great part of our lives with the people we work with, so having high-quality, authentic, and close work relationships are key to success.”

Here are five top tips from Malouf to help with that:

Tip #1: Know yourself

We all have unconscious expectations of other people. When they play a specific role in our lives — like leaders or followers do — we have beliefs, which we may or may not be aware of, about how they should behave in their role. “Look at the people in your work life and think about those with whom you have productive relationships and then those with whom you have unproductive relationships,” she says. “Many times, the people with whom we have productive relationships are just like us – they have similar beliefs and reactions to events.

Now, think about your unproductive relationships, people you find challenging to convince, or you don’t understand how they think, she adds. Think about the conflicts you have with different people. What are the themes? she says. For example, perhaps your leader is always late for meetings. You may have a belief that a leader should always be early for meetings if they are a good leader, so you find their actions disrespectful.

Or, you may have a follower who does what is written in their personal development plan, but no more. You consider this follower an adequate employee, but not one who’s very engaged or motivated. “In both of these examples, there’s the possibility that your unconscious (or conscious) beliefs are getting triggered so that you react and decide that you don’t like the person,” says Malouf. “Perhaps there’s a back story to their behavior that you’re unaware of, and which perhaps could change your attitude if you knew it. Relationships are made up of many interactions that can build them in either a positive or a negative direction, but you need to be aware of what you are bringing to the party.

Tip#2: Empathy

Malouf defines empathy as: awareness, understanding, and the ability to share the feelings of another. Empathy “is arguably the pinnacle of our social cognitive achievements— the peak of the social brain” according to neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman. To empathize with others, we need to use all of our social neural systems, so it is very draining of our energy.

It helps when leaders are more empathetic towards followers, but it is not a one-way street, she explains. “When followers understand that a leader also has leaders and that they have to fulfill their role as designated by the company, then this can strengthen their relationship with their leader,” she says.

We must listen to what others are saying and feel what they are feeling, and then be moved to help them,” she says. The idea of being able to “walk in someone else’s shoes” means the ability to let go of our own needs, beliefs, and judgments, and be open to someone else’s perception of reality.” Empathy brings about altruistic behavior and choices, she adds. “Our brain is designed to stay in our own shoes, and many of us have a hard time ignoring what we are thinking, in order to pay attention to another person,” she says. “So, it is hard to do.”

Tip #3: Be accountable

It is important in all relationships not to see yourself as a victim, according to Malouf. Take responsibility and be accountable for everything that is yours: thoughts, feelings, reactions, and actions. “Many have a habit of saying: ‘My boss made me feel (fill in the blank),’” she says. “No one MAKES you feel anything! That is all yours. When you say someone else makes you feel something, you are giving control of yourself and your power to another person.

If you find yourself reacting to someone in a negative way, look at your own reaction rather than talking negatively about the other person, she advises.

Tip #4: Have self-control

Self-control doesn’t just regulate emotions, it also enables you to process strong emotions productively. A person can think about and actively manage their self and emotions to achieve a calm and powerful presence,” she says. “That, in turn, helps create many of the outcomes we associate with success.”

People with higher levels of self-control have higher incomes, higher credit scores, better health, and better social skills from childhood to adulthood, and they report being happier with life, according to Lieberman. All types of self-control (motor, emotional, or cognitive) use the same brain functions, but we can only perform one kind of self-control at a time.

Self-control is about choosing to do unpleasant tasks, doing the right thing, impulse control, staying on schedule, and completing tasks. “At a minimum, be stable and don’t show up angry one day and passive the next day,” says Malouf. People automatically trust others who are psychologically predictable. Beyond that, individuals who have a lighter presence and are happy will be able to build and maintain productive work relationships.

Tip #5: Apologize

At times, we all blow it and make mistakes in our interactions with others. People handle this differently. “Some individuals aren’t even aware that they may have been hurtful to another person,” says Malouf. “Therefore, it is important to be present and mindful.

If you are present and tuned into the other person, you should be able to notice if what you have said has been received appropriately. “If it hasn’t, ask how the other is doing or what they are thinking,” she says. “You can even say, ‘Did what I just said have a negative impact on you?’ If the answer is yes – important information here – do not defend yourself and, especially, do not attack the other person.” Instead, she advises that you can say: Help me understand what you’re feeling and why this affected you negatively. I sincerely want to understand.” Then, actively listen to their answer. You can do this by paraphrasing what they are saying and reflecting their feelings back to them. Then say, “I am sorry,” followed by “please forgive me.” Then Malouf suggests saying: “I love you.” You don’t have to say it out loud, just think it. “Many people, as they are reading this, are probably thinking: ‘What? I don’t love people I work with,” she says. “I say to them, ‘Try it, you might like it.’ ”

Sincerely being present and paying attention to others, listening to them, and apologizing if what you have said has affected them negatively, will enable you to build strong relationships with a wide range of people and personalities. “At least, say that you’re sorry, and do it sincerely and authentically – in other words – mean it,” she says.

Relationships at work are just as important as those in the rest of our lives. The key difference is that we can’t escape interacting with our colleagues. It has to be done. So why not make the best of those relationships and make life better for everyone.

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