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What is Affiliative Leadership?

Affiliative leadership is often referred to as the ‘people first’ approach. This is because affiliative leadership is a style of leadership that focuses completely on people and relationships. Choosing the right kind of leadership will make a huge impact on the happiness and the well-being of the team you lead, as well as on the ultimate productivity and success of your business, so it’s important that you get it right. To help ensure that you do, here’s everything you need to know about affiliative leadership:

What is Affiliative Leadership?

As a leader, there are many different leadership techniques that you can adopt. Daniel Goleman described six different types of emotional leadership styles, and affiliative leadership is one of these. Affiliative leadership is defined as a leadership style that focuses on conflict resolution and creating personal connections between employees and their managers. The aim of this leadership technique is to build a sense of community and trust, creating a workplace environment that is harmonious and welcoming. Affiliative leaders are often focused on solving conflicts and are usually brought to businesses where conflict resolution is needed, or to businesses that are undergoing a significant period of change.

Affiliative leadership creates effective teams, boosts employee morale, and can create harmony within a workplace. This is because an affiliative leader is caring and nurturing and is tuned in to the emotions of their team members. As a result, your main role as an affiliative leader will be to provide ongoing feedback to your team members: this feedback should be as positive as possible, with constructive criticisms framed in a positive way and accompanied by other positive messages. Ensuring that employees always know their importance and value to the team is an integral part of the leader’s role under the affiliative leadership model.

Characteristics of Affiliative Leadership

Not sure if you’re an affiliative leader? Or if the technique is right for you? The characteristics of an affiliative leader are very distinctive, and include:

  • Making people your main focus. If you firmly believe that without a happy workforce your business wouldn’t exist, then you may be an affiliative leader. Affiliative leaders value each individual member of their team and place a strong focus on understanding and respecting their emotions and their unique needs
  • Affiliative leaders form bonds with their team members. You will often find that affiliative leaders have a strong sense of loyalty towards their employees and that this sense of loyalty works both ways. A strong focus on the people you work with is considered to be one of the cornerstones of affiliative leadership
  • A strong moral compass. Affiliative leaders discourage ethical behaviour, value high morals, and encourage these in their employees
  • Affiliative leaders are empathetic and understanding. They view each team member as an individual and work hard to build relationships with them on a one-to-one basis, as well as within the larger team group
  • Good communication skills are essential for an affiliative leader. These types of leaders tend to communicate with their employees regularly and work hard to ensure that they only share positive communication with their team members. This is because affiliative leaders believe that the higher employee morale is, the harder they will work, and therefore the more likely it is that they will meet their individual and company goals
  • Rigid rules have very little place in the affiliative leadership style. Instead, employees are given trust and flexibility. They are able to follow their own ideas for business innovation and make their own decisions. They are trusted to handle changing situations based on the communication that they have had with their leader and with the wider team
Stress-Free Workplaces

Positives of Affiliative Leadership

Some of the main benefits of pursuing affiliative leadership within your own workplace include:

  • Increased Employee Morale. Leaders that utilise affiliative leadership give their employees more freedom to express their feelings and their opinions. This freedom drives increased employee morale by making these workers feel more valued, and that their voices are being heard by their leadership teams. An additional effect of increasing employee morale in this way is that employers will be driven to perform better, and to contribute to the positive progression of the company
  • More Effective Teamwork. Teams that are led by an affiliative leader are often more close-knit and work better together. Affiliative leaders build strong workplace relationships, creating unity between employees at all levels. Teams that are close-knit in this way tend to experience increased productivity and job satisfaction, which means that employee turnover rates are much lower too
  • Increased Employee Loyalty. Employees that are trusted and supportive are much more loyal to the company that they work for. This is important because high staff turnover can cost a fortune and have a negative impact on employee productivity too: in real terms, this means that earning employee loyalty with affiliative leadership could save you a fortune
  • Higher Levels of Employee Trust. Affiliative leaders listen to their employees and understand their unique needs. They have a genuine interest in their well-being and their career development. This means that there is a higher level of trust between employees and affiliative leaders
  • Efficient Conflict Resolution. Conflict within the workplace can have a negative impact on productivity and staff morale. But leaders that use affiliative leadership techniques can recognise when conflicts are emerging, or when employee relationship tensions and emotions are getting high. They can then use this knowledge to find a resolution to the problem quickly and efficiently, so that their teams can return to full productivity, working with full cohesion and understanding
  • Working Well During Crisis. During times of crisis or high-pressure situations (including, but not limited to mergers or staff cutbacks) employee wellbeing levels tend to decline. However, employees that have been exposed to affiliative leadership are better placed to deal with the stress and negative emotions of these situations, whilst still maintaining high working standards, productivity, and nurturing their relationships with other employees
  • Stress-Free Workplaces. Finally, workplaces led by affiliative leaders tend to be stress-free workplaces. This is because employees genuinely enjoy working in these environments and the positive emotional responses and interactions that they see on a daily basis become easier to replicate, ultimately reducing stress levels

Negatives of Affiliative Leadership

Whilst affiliative leadership is considered a superior leadership technique in terms of meeting the emotional needs of employees, and ensuring that teams work together cohesively, there are some negatives to affiliative leadership. These negatives include:

  • Some Employees May Become Complacent. A cornerstone of affiliative leadership is that leaders should always be positive with the feedback that they give to their employees, often combining constructive criticism with praise. However, by always delivering positive feedback, employees that are underperforming may find that their poor performance is overlooked. This will have a negative impact on overall team productivity. It could also breed resentment amongst the team members that are performing at a higher level
  • Issues May Be Left Unresolved. With a focus on being positive and building cohesive team relationships, it can be tempting for affiliative leaders to leave issues unresolved for the sake of team harmony. Whilst this might increase employee satisfaction, it could have a negative impact on productivity, and reaching targets, and could ultimately prevent your company from achieving its business goals
  • Dependency Issues. Whilst it is beneficial for employees to build positive relationships and connections with their team leaders, affiliative leadership places such a key focus on this that some employees may develop an unhealthy dependence on their leader. This could negatively impact both the team and the wider business, and it is key that affiliative leaders avoid fostering this kind of dependence

Situations When Affiliative Leadership Works

Affiliative leadership can work well as a constant leadership model for some business types. But there are two particular circumstances in which affiliative leadership can work particularly well for businesses: when they are in times of challenge or transition, and when new teams are being shaped from scratch.

Many companies will specifically bring in affiliative leaders to provide support and help to teams or companies that are facing periods of extreme challenge. This challenge could be a merger or takeover, company cutbacks, or other periods of change which could leave employees feeling uncertain and have a negative impact on their wellbeing.  During these periods of uncertainty, many businesses will still need their employees to work at their usual levels, in order to maintain productivity. An affiliative leader could achieve this by giving those employees the emotional space they need to work through what is happening in a healthy way, ensuring that they maintain work productivity and quality whilst also interacting with a line manager that understands their emotional needs.

The other situation in which affiliative leadership works particularly well is when a new team or company is being formed from scratch. Affiliative leaders in these situations can help new team members to form bonds with each other and create a sense of individual and company loyalty. Welding new team members together by creating a sense of trust and loyalty can only be for the greater good of the team, and therefore the company. However, this is accompanied by a caveat: when used ineffectively, or excessively, this leadership style can go too far. Affiliative leaders still need to focus on their end goal, which is increased productivity, high-quality output, or any other marker of business success that is measured by your company. And you should never lose sight of the importance of achieving that goal, even at the expense of the well-being and happiness of your employees.

When to Avoid Affiliative Leadership

Because affiliative leaders take a hands-off approach to managing their employees, affiliative leadership isn’t always the best path for all business types. In fact, there are some circumstances where you should avoid affiliative leadership. If your business is struggling then you should take a step back from affiliative leadership, for example: when a leader’s primary task is to ensure harmony and friendship in the workplace, they may not be simultaneously focusing on company performance. And happy employees can’t counterbalance the negative impact of a business that is performing poorly. Affiliative leadership often focuses inwards, looking primarily at the emotional needs of the team members. In these circumstances, a stronger external focus is needed to help turn the fortunes of the company around.

Examples of Affiliative Leadership

Perhaps the most famous example of an affiliative leader is Warren Buffett. The American business magnate, investor and philanthropist has always put people first, throughout his illustrious career. Buffet is well known and highly regarded for focusing on the well-being of the finance professionals that worked for him. He put their well-being first, and then trusted them to make the right decisions for his businesses: he was rewarded for this trust handsomely. This is a great example of affiliative leadership that worked well. Warren Buffet is a great mentor and influencer to his company and employees: that he was able to do this whilst simultaneously achieving his financial goals is an excellent example of successful affiliative leadership working as it should.

Although not operating within a business arena in the same way that Warren Buffett does, another incredibly well-known example of an affiliative leader is the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is the highest spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism and the former leader of Tibet. The Dalia Lama teaches compassion and dedication to his followers: he shows a genuine interest in their lives and in their spiritual development. In return, those followers are committed to him and to walking on his path of happiness and harmony, no matter what the conditions are. Whilst this is an example from outside of the business arena, it remains a key example of successful affiliative leadership in action.

Finally, the final example of an affiliative leader that we will use here is former New York Yankees boss Joe Torres: we are using this as an example of affiliative leadership because it is an example that was often used by Daniel Goleman, who defined the term. Torres led one of the most famous and successful teams in the history of baseball, which meant he also had to deal with the demands and egos of each of those famous players. He did this using affiliative leadership. He held the team together, he ensured that they worked harmoniously together, he praised his players and expressed gratitude for their individual achievements. This is a great example of how affiliative leadership can be used to deal with teams that are made up of highly successful, or highly egotistical, individuals, and ensure that they work together for the greater good of the company.

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