Why Leaders Should Work on Their Relationship Building Skills

July 27, 2023

Leadership Relationship Building Skills

Do personal relationships have the power to shape a leader’s perception of individual performance? The significance of fostering healthy workplace relationships cannot be underestimated. Extensive research has shed light on our ability to connect with diverse individuals, revealing that we are not only happier but also more productive in doing so. In his book “How to Get Along with (Almost) Anyone,” Michael Bungay Stainer asserts, “Your success and happiness are determined by the quality of your working relationships. Don’t leave it to chance.” Rather than merely hoping for an amicable atmosphere with our boss and colleagues, we can proactively identify the key areas that foster thriving work relationships. However, how much does the ability to forge strong workplace connections truly influence better performance?

Understanding the Importance of Relationship-Building Skills.

Using Zenger Folkman’s global database of leaders, I created an index measuring six distinct behaviors that reflected good relationship-building practices.

· Initiates and maintains effective working relationships with others

· Is trusted by all members of the workgroup

· Deals collaboratively with people to get their work accomplished

· Takes into account how their actions affect other groups or team members

· Can be trusted to act in the team’s best interest, even when working independently

· Achieves objectives requiring a high level of cooperation from people in other parts of the organization

The Manager’s Perception of Individual Relationship-Building Skills:

I analyzed data from 12,299 individuals to explore the link between relationship-building and performance rankings. Managers evaluated each individual on 59 behaviors, and in addition, they rated the level of productivity and effort, which were combined to form an overall performance ranking.

Contrary to expectations that relationship reigns supreme, this research identified seven other capabilities that had a greater influence on performance rankings.

  1. Establishes Stretch Goals
  2. Drives for Results
  3. Inspires and Motivates Others to High Performance
  4. Displays High Integrity and Honesty
  5. Takes Initiative
  6. Technical or Professional Expertise
  7. Solves Problems and Analyzes Issues

The Influence of Other Behaviors on Productivity:

These specific behaviors had a greater influence on performance rankings than relationship building because of their direct impact on job-related outcomes.

Firstly, the willingness to set stretch goals and deliver results directly reflects an individual’s ability to take on challenging tasks and achieve tangible outcomes. This capability showcases their motivation, drive, and determination to excel in their role, which naturally translates into higher performance rankings.

Similarly, the ability to inspire and motivate others demonstrates an individual’s capacity to create a positive work environment and foster productivity among team members. The inclusion of perceived honesty and integrity in the rankings further highlights the significance of ethical conduct in the workplace. Trustworthiness and integrity are vital for establishing a positive work culture and fostering strong professional relationships.

Additionally, taking the initiative showcases a proactive approach to work, indicating individuals are self-driven and able to identify and act on opportunities without constant supervision. Technical skills and problem-solving abilities directly contribute to successful task completion and positively influence performance evaluations.

The Impact of Relationship-Building on Leadership Capabilities:

While strong relationship-building skills heavily influence collaboration and teamwork, these specific behaviors mentioned above have a more direct and measurable influence on job-related outcomes. Thus, they hold greater weight in a manager’s performance rankings than your ability to converse well.

The silver lining? Rest assured, any worries about relationship-building leading to unjust bias are simply unfounded in this research.

The Interactions Effect of Relationship-Building with Other Skills:

Upon closer examination of the influence of relationship-building, I wanted to understand its impact on the seven other behaviors that showed stronger correlations with individual performance rankings. To explore this, we divided the individual contributors into quartiles based on their relationship-building scores and analyzed variance. This allowed us to compare the average scores on the seven other capabilities across the different relationship-building groups. The results revealed significant differences in all seven capabilities compared to relationship-building. The graph below illustrates how individuals with strong relationship-building skills in the top quartile were more effective on all the other seven skills.

Relationship Building Skills Study with Zenger Folkman

(Zenger Folkman 2023 Study on relationship building influence on other leadership capabilities.)

This analysis clearly demonstrated that individuals with poor relationship-building skills were significantly less effective in all seven skills, while those highly skilled in relationship-building were notably more effective.


Before disregarding your likability and attributing any personality defects as something your coworkers just need to deal with, it’s essential to recognize the invisible impact these skills have on your overall performance. Your ability to effectively communicate with others extends beyond solving your own problems. Your proficiency in listening builds trust and establishes integrity. Your friendships inspire others to reach higher and stretch alongside you. While the ability to forge a good friendship may not be the main thing getting the work done each day, its influence spreads across every dimension that drives excellent performance. The lesson here is clear: don’t leave these work relationships to chance. Strong relationship skills are worth the attention and effort.

  • Joe Folkman, Co-founder and President of Zenger Folkman

(This article first appeared on Forbes.com.)