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This Trendy Leadership Style Makes Employees Feel Valued — But It Also Poses a Risk to Managers
Adobe Stock / Seventyfour
Taylor Tobin
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If your career goals include a rise into a management or directorial position, then you’ll likely seek out opportunities to acquaint yourself with different leadership styles. 

Many business scholars and present-day executives point to the 2000 Harvard Business Review study by David Goleman entitled “Leadership That Gets Results” as a landmark text on this topic, and that study presents six distinct types of leadership, each of which can yield drastically varied results.

One leadership style described by Goleman is affiliative leadership, which attempts to appeal to employees’ emotions and their desire to connect and bond with their colleagues and work environments. Affiliative managers lead through positive reinforcement, with the goal of making their team members feel supported, heard and valued. 

While an affiliative management style certainly proves beneficial in certain contexts and instances, is it always the best method of creating and maintaining a productive work atmosphere? To answer that question, we’re bringing you a deep dive into affiliative leadership: what it is, which qualities are required, its advantages, its disadvantages and how to reconcile the two.

5 qualities of an affiliative leader.

1. Empathy

Above all else, an affiliative leader must possess a keen sense of empathy. Her ability to address her employees’ emotional needs and to approach work issues and concerns from an open-minded perspective is paramount to this leadership motif. 

2. Patience

Affiliative leadership tends to prioritize the happiness and satisfaction of employees over the company’s need for efficiency and precision. For that reason, this “people first” approach requires an even keel and abundant patience. Rather than matter-of-factly telling her employees that their work product isn’t up to standards, an affiliative manager must communicate that message in a nurturing manner that makes the employees feel like she “has their back,” even when they make mistakes.

3. A commitment to conflict resolution 

Affiliative leaders prize harmonious team dynamics, so they need to have clear plans in place for handling disagreements or personality conflicts that arise. These managers try to get to the emotional root of these problems and to resolve them on a personal level rather than on a solely professional one. 

4. Flexibility

Supervisors who follow an affiliative path don’t lay down strict, immovable edicts and insist that their employees accept things “as they are.” Instead, they’re willing and eager to explore alternatives and to work closely with their team members to ensure that solutions can be found and that employees understand that they can come to their manager if they need to request a more flexible schedule, less defined parameters on a project, etc.

5. Strong communication skills

Because affiliative managers place so much emphasis on their employees’ comfort and emotional and mental wellbeing, it’s necessary for them to hone and develop their communication capabilities. A strong affiliative leader has to balance their displays of support and kindness with the company’s need to get tasks accomplished, and in order to achieve both of those goals, these supervisors are by necessity open and remarkably-talented communicators.

The advantages of affiliative leadership:

On a fundamental level, there’s a lot to like about affiliative leadership. It focuses on personal connections, it prioritizes kindness and consideration, and it allows employees to feel like important members of a team rather than like expendable cogs in a machine. Specific advantages are as follows:

  • This leadership style results in improved morale for employees. These workers feel valued and respected, and they’re therefore generally happier to come to work and to put their full efforts into their job responsibilities.
  • Employee trust in their manager rises exponentially when they feel like their supervisor hears their concerns and wants to act in both the best interests of the employees and those of the company. The close bonds forged by affiliative leadership makes employees feel more willing and able to be open with their supervisors, eliminating the need for secrecy and reducing the odds of miscommunication.
  • The affiliative leadership style doesn’t rely on micromanagement; affiliative managers strive to cultivate an environment in which their employees are empowered to take initiative and claim autonomy for their own work, which provides a fertile breeding ground for creativity and inventiveness.
  • Team unity is essential to this leadership style, so employees feel invested in not just their own work and their individual contributions to projects, but also in larger assignment arcs and in the deliverables provided by their fellow team members. 

The disadvantages of affiliative leadership:

Affiliative leadership can prove a positive force in favor of happy employees and an upbeat, praise-heavy working atmosphere. However, it can also create challenges for managers, especially when it comes to addressing subpar performance standards and devising and enacting plans for correcting missteps. The particular disadvantages of this style are as follows:

  • Unless an affiliative leader is extremely experienced with this style and committed to using the benefits to increase productivity, they can encounter difficulties with timeliness, thoroughness and “pulling rank." Affiliative leadership is hands-off by nature, so when and if a manager does need to suddenly jump back in and oversee her employees’ work in a more direct way, she may be met by resistance.
  • Because affiliative leaders almost exclusively provide positive and encouraging feedback, employees may question whether they’re receiving honest reactions where their work quality is concerned. As a result, this style of leadership can sometimes come across as a bit disingenuous, which may actually reduce a team’s willingness to place faith and confidence in their manager. It can also demoralize high-performing employees, if they feel that their less-accomplished coworkers aren’t being held accountable for their missteps, a common problem with this management style.
  • This style’s emphasis on emotional health and close bonding often makes it difficult to draw a line between “personal” and “professional” relationships. Therefore, the reasoning behind managerial actions like granting promotions may come into question, depending on whether or not overly-tight friendships form between managers and reports.

How can a manager successfully implement affiliative leadership?

When outlining the six leadership styles, Goleman does make a point of explaining that no single style will be appropriate for each and every issue and challenge confronted by a manager or her team. The key to understanding different types of management involves identifying instances in which one style will be most effective, others that favor a different style, and so on. 

Affiliative leadership proves most valuable when a cohesive team is crucial to the work in question. If you’re managing a small group of employees and must complete a project that requires creativity, significant employee input, and a high level of enthusiasm, then affiliative leadership can improve your chances of keeping said team happy and ready to take on a new challenge. 

Also, affiliative leadership offers stability and security in times of upheaval; if a company or a team has recently experienced a major change, leaving employees feeling uneasy and shaken, then a manager who’s committed to taking care of her employees’ emotional needs can provide succor and can help the employees refocus and channel their energies toward necessary tasks.

However, it’s equally important to acknowledge circumstances in which affiliative leadership isn’t the most helpful method for accomplishing a particular goal. For instance, if a project requires employees to take responsibility for their own actions and to achieve benchmarks on a strict schedule, then a manager can’t generally afford to be as hands-off as the affiliative approach would demand. 

Using discretion and taking the initiative to blend leadership styles depending on the needs of your team, your role and the company as a whole will set any manager up for success and will give her the chance to maximize the benefits of different techniques and methodologies. A great manager draws inspiration from many sources to create a pastiche of ideas that works for her, and affiliative leadership can be an integral square on that quilt. 

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