Leading the Way on Approaches to Leadership

Affiliative leadership can enhance your competency in Leadership & Navigation

By Paul Young, SHRM-SCP October 10, 2019
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​Not long ago, I started preparing to teach a SHRM Certification exam preparation class at Northwestern University. We use the SHRM Learning System and cover the Leadership & Navigation competency first. This helps get the class off to a good start because most students will remember theories of leadership and motivation (for example, Maslow's hierarchy of needs) from when they took a management class in college. They also already grasp such concepts as coaching, authoritative and democratic approaches to leadership.

To improve my students' understanding of leadership in the prep course I'm teaching this year, I'll be presenting them with less familiar examples of leadership theories, specifically the affiliative approach.

Affiliative leadership was first described in 2000 in "Leadership That Gets Results," an article in the Harvard Business Review by Daniel Goleman, who also authored the book Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 1995).

The affiliative leader "creates strong relationships with and inside the team, encouraging feedback. The team members are motivated by loyalty." The approach is especially effective "when a leader has inherited a dysfunctional and dispirited team that needs to be transformed."

The discussion of Leadership & Navigation in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge notes that "[e]ffective leadership is associated with such positive outcomes as improved employee attitudes (e.g., job satisfaction, commitment, engagement), decreased turnover and increased performance." Among the key concepts associated with the competency are leadership theories and trust- and relationship-building techniques (e.g., emotional and social intelligence).

I hope one of my students will share a personal example of affiliative leadership in class, but in any case I'd like to share my own experience with it here.

Model Train Garden not a Model Workplace

The setting is the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am a volunteer manager at the model railroad display. For a couple of years, I worked on the weekday opening shift. Four years ago, I switched to managing the Sunday closing shift.

I observed my team of four volunteers for a few weeks and made some realizations.

Weekend shifts were less desirable. Senior management rarely stopped in. The crew felt forgotten and unappreciated. Team members didn't seem to enjoy being there. Shift substitutes were hard to find. The volunteers didn't greet or engage guests and didn't check on the model trains. They didn't speak with one another and often disappeared for lengthy breaks.

Transformer of a Derailed Team

I wanted to build a better team, foster the volunteers' pride in themselves and their work, and help them develop a commitment to one another and to the garden guests.

I used the affiliative leadership approach. Here are some of the things I did:

  • Offered ideas for our shift to create its own identity and stand out among the other shifts.
  • Proposed nicknames for our crew.
  • Referred to us as "The Best Shift" at all times, including in communications to senior management.
  • Asked for—and implemented—team members' ideas on how to improve our closing processes ("How would The Best Shift handle things?").
  • Built trust by giving the volunteers responsibility to organize their own break schedules, within a few loose parameters.
  • Told the team not to worry about finding substitutes if they couldn't come in for their shift, which assured them we all had one another's backs and support.
  • Gave each volunteer an area of responsibility that suited their skills and interests (e.g., storing equipment at closing time; ensuring that the garden's water feature was always at the sufficient level; giving guests close-up views; etc.)
  • Waved to the tram tour whenever it drove past, to demonstrate our pride in our work as a team in that exhibit. As a result, the driver started waving back and encouraging passengers to do the same. Soon my volunteers started waving, and the driver started talking up our exhibit even more positively to the passengers on the tour.


The Light at the End of the Tunnel

In just a few months, my volunteers were completing their responsibilities without prompting. They referred to our group as The Best Shift. They looked for ways to engage guests. No one worried about finding a shift replacement. One volunteer was even eager to put out more model railroad cars (because long trains are awesome!). Another monitored the entrance and enthusiastically greeted and thanked every guest.

In the four years since I took over the "less desirable" weekend closing shift, we've had no turnover of volunteers. This past summer, in fact, the crew—on their own—proposed and organized monthly potluck dinners after our shift.

Imagine volunteering to stay after work on a Sunday night for a potluck dinner with your co-workers!

Paul Young, SHRM-SCP, is HR manager for the American Association of Endodontists, an adjunct instructor at Northwestern University and certification committee chair for Chicago SHRM. 

For more information on SHRM Certification, and to register for the exam, please visit our website. 

Already SHRM-certified? Be sure to maintain your credential by recertifying. Learn more about recertification activities here.

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