Are relationships making or breaking your leadership success?

Do you remember the 1999 Wimbledon Tennis Tournament, when 16-year-old Jelena Dokic achieved one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, beating women’s world No. 1 Martina Hingis 6–2, 6–0? It remains the only time the women’s world No. 1 has ever lost to a qualifier at Wimbledon and Dokic went on to reach the quarterfinals of the competition – only her second Grand Slam tournament.

At a ‘Women in Sport’ event I attended in 2019, I heard Jalena speak about her successes, but also about her relationship challenges. Her rapid climb through the world rankings was marred by struggles with her father and coach Damir.

But, the over-riding message when she spoke was one of hope – we are stronger than we think we are and we can choose to live life in the way that we want.

The key message that Jalena’s story reinforced for me is that relationships can make and break us.  And that’s not surprising. We are innately social because our brains are hard-wired for social connection.

And leadership is all about creating and maintaining the right kind of relationships for everyone’s success.

Relationships – a basic need

To the brain, social connection is as essential as food and water and it activates similar threat and pain responses when it is absent.1

Mirror Mirror…

Our brains create feelings of connectedness through processing information from others as if we are having the same experience.  These mirror neurons light up in our brain when we see someone else doing something that we have done, or are about to do. We feel connected. Like we are ‘on the same page’.

And this works with emotions too.

We share the emotions of the people we are with; and this can be a good or a bad thing depending on the context!

(We’ve all been in meetings that have spiraled out of control because of the negativity of just one or two people!).

It’s also why it’s so important that leaders are self-aware and manage their emotions constructively.

>>Related post: Can you feel it? The Feeling-well Doing-well link>>

Why good relationships matter

Face to face interactions help mirror neurons do their work – the more social cues are absent, the more risk there is of misreading intent and not connecting with other people’s emotional states.

A face-to-face meeting (or a video conference) is always more effective in building connection than an email.

Feeling good, functioning well

Good relationships also make us feel good and perform well. This is because each time you genuinely connect with another person, the pleasure-inducing hormone oxytocin is released into your bloodstream reducing anxiety and stress and improving concentration and focus.

This explains why employee satisfaction, productivity and retention is higher when they report that their immediate boss cares about them. 

What can leaders do to create and encourage positive relationships?

Making people feel valued by listening well and expressing gratitude and appreciation are simple and effective ways in which leaders can build, sustain and model positive relationships.


What do you do to encourage positive relationships in your team?

Dr Paige Williams

Dr Paige Williams

International Speaker, Author, Mentor


Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.

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