“Without trust, you cannot lead.[1]

It could be the motto of Darden professor Morela Hernandez’ classroom, where many of her MBA students are learning how to move from individual contributor to leader.

“When I teach leadership development, trust comes up again and again. It’s what makes businesses work,” Hernandez observes. “It’s how we deal with each other and get stuff done.”

If trust is vital to leadership, how do leaders — particularly new leaders — build it? Hernandez advises demonstrating relational leadership first. That means showing you respect your team, will seek their input on important matters and will treat them fairly. She and colleagues Sim Sitkin from Duke University and Chris Long from Georgetown University studied the interplay between three “foundational” kinds of leadership (personal, contextual and relational) to try to understand their impact on trust. (Quick primer: personal leadership is showing personal qualities that are worthy of being in charge, such as expertise, integrity and passion for the work; contextual leadership is demonstrating you can effectively maneuver through the organization’s processes, politics and systems.)

Although all three types of leadership build trust, the researchers discovered they are not “equally influential.” Instead, relational leadership behaviors are the “central determinants of follower trust creation.”

“The relationship-focused mindset is a very important piece,” Hernandez says. “It’s the conduit or lens through which all other actions will be interpreted.”

A Passport to Trust

 Why is relational leadership so critical? Hernandez notes that, rather than systematically assessing competence or vetting the organizational context, people first look for clues as to how they’ll be treated. “Followers may well base most of their trust in a leader on relational interactions,” she writes. They “quickly arrive at a rough assessment of the quality of their relationship with the leader.” If the assessment is positive, the leader is trusted, and other kinds of leadership become effective. For instance, someone who is seen as relationship-focused is also likely to be perceived as being personally competent and credible.  They are more likely to have their “definition of the organization’s structure and social dynamics” accepted and adopted.

In fact, Hernandez writes, personal and contextual leadership are “effective to the extent that they are coupled with a relational foundation that leaders create.”

It’s important to note, however, that relational leadership is not about being buddies with everyone in the office. “Asking someone how their weekend was is not relational leadership,” Hernandez notes. “Being friendly is not sufficient for creating trust.” Relational leadership is about understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those you lead and being able to create the foundation to giving critical, developmental feedback.

Relational Leadership in Action

 For Hernandez, these findings are useful both for experienced leaders and nascent ones like her MBA students.

“Leaders are often called upon to exude competence, maintain relationships and clarify situational priorities,” she writes. That’s a lot to juggle.

“When students realize all they need to do, the question is often, ‘Wow, where do I start, what do I pick to do first?” she notes. “For us, that’s an empirical question and what prompted this study.”

Bottom line? When you’re stressed, in crisis or juggling multiple priorities, don’t short-change relationships. “Leaders wishing to enhance follower trust should invest more time in crafting and maintaining positive leader-follower relationships than projecting their own personal characteristics or transmitting the organizational mission.”

Masters of Relational Leadership:

  • Actively listen to subordinates to understand what they’re saying and how they’re feeling about what they are saying.
  • Solicit team input on important decisions and keep the team informed.
  • Encourage team members to regularly share ideas and perspectives.
  • Seek out and show respect and consideration for dissenting views.
  • Deal fairly with everyone in the office, regardless of level or role.
  • Give objective, specific, behaviorally focused feedback, both positive and negative.
  • Understand team members’ career priorities, capabilities and place within the organization.

Darden Professor Morela Hernandez is co-author of “Cultivating Follower Trust: Are All Leader Behaviors Equally Influential?” which appeared in Organization Studies, with Chris P. Long of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University and Sim B. Sitkin of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

[1] Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (2nd edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.