Shining a light on relationships

By Professor Tony Wall and Dr Rachel Hawley | 20 November 2023

Over the last decade, public sector policy has pushed for collaboration as a lever for quality improvement. It marks a shift, away from ‘doing to’ people to ‘doing with’ people.

In our experience and research, deep relationships and trust depend on leaders’ relationships with themselves, with others and with their leadership context, including the work environment and within their communities. Our experience points to some key principles to nurture deeper relationships:

1–Understand what motivates staff to be collaborative

This is the curiosity around ways of working where leaders find ways to listen, reflect and experiment, encouraging self-understanding.

One way to do this is the opportunity for staff to tell their story. The act of ‘telling’ a story helps people establish a deep sense of their purpose – it roots people’s sense of purpose in self-understanding.

The opportunity to share their story impacts positively on leaders’ motivations. This means ‘hearing’ and ‘telling’ stories in authentic, concise, and engaging ways – avoiding spin.

2–Spark engagement through creative conversations

When leaders use creativity, they are helping to connect people to memories and significant events. It helps to move people’s understanding of complex issues – such as integration, collaboration, co-production, and inclusion – from process to emotional connection.

Sparking engagement through creative conversations can happen in a variety of ways – written, conversational, and visual – including, for example, coaching and mentoring. This requires time and space. Different conversations lead to different relationships.

3–Create time and space for reflection

Leaders feel too often that there is inadequate time to reflect on their experiences, so making time to reflect is important to make sense of their experience. This kind of self-reflection supports resilience because it helps people discover a deep sense of their own purpose – and to understand the support needed to build and sustain collaborative ways of working.

Working in spaces with cultures of kindness challenges people to be self-aware and drives people to be attentive to each other; it enables staff to talk through and strengthen their leadership identity. For example, a conversation which enables reflection to happen enables people to voice, challenge and explore any inconsistencies around personal and organisational values.

4–Role model the principles and practices of collaboration

Being a role model is testament to leaders’ potential for transformation by shining the light on relationships to spark peoples’ thoughts, emotions and actions over time.

Role modelling collaborative relationships is about how we show up in every interaction, untapping shared understanding and connection – a sense of belonging.

For example, we found leaders and organisations tasked with progressing issues such as collaborations, can get caught up in developing policy and strategy to the detriment of focusing on translating policy into practice by role modelling.

At the heart of cultivating collaborative work relationships is the need to ‘shine a light on relationships’ despite the complexity surrounding it. Let us create the conditions to enable us to foster profound moments of connection and belonging.

Dr Rachel Hawley is leadership associate of the NHS Leadership Academy and founder of Change Comes From Within consulting. Professor Tony Wall is associate at The Conversation Company

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