Employee Motivation

How to boost team morale with an affiliative leadership style

8 min read

Your employees are people. That's why affiliative leadership style is the best way to manage your team as human beings. Learn about what affiliative leadership is, the benefits and how to put it in action.

It’s no secret that happy employees are more productive at work — in fact, research shows that businesses whose employees are satisfied with their work environments saw a 16% increase in productivity

The reverse is also true: unhappy, disengaged employees are less likely to give their full effort. They are also more likely to spread their negativity to others. So, how do you promote a positive culture at your small business? Apply an affiliative leadership style — a people-first approach to leadership. Because, ultimately, your employees aren’t just employees — they’re humans too. 

In this article, we’ll cover:

What is affiliative leadership? 

Affiliative leadership is one of six emotional leadership styles highlighted in Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. This work explains how emotions play a fundamental role in the way we operate as humans and why emotional intelligence (EQ) is critical to leadership.

six emotional leadership styles: commanding, visionary, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting and coaching
(Source)

The marking of an affiliative leader is a “people come first” mentality, which makes them — unsurprisingly — very popular among employees. These leaders bring with them a perspective that promotes positivity, a harmonious and inclusive workplace, and team-building. 

Key qualities of an affiliative leader

Leadership is an action, not a position. And it is these actions that will help build strong teams  — whether it’s by managing burnout, keeping them engaged, or fostering a culture of psychological safety. While there are many traits that make up a good leader, the following qualities rank highly among affiliative leaders.

1. Excels at conflict resolution 

Affiliative leaders are mediation aficionados. They work hard at creating harmony within the workplace — so if their team members are facing any hurdles, they are quick to dismantle them. If they sense any strife between their team, they’re quick to step in and help repair the relationship.

2. Focuses on employee well-being

Are my direct reports finding work to be a positive experience? Is the work they’re doing appreciated? Do they feel valued as an individual? These questions often float in their minds as they place the well-being of an employee very high on their list of priorities.

3. Puts people at the heart of business success 

A people-first leader will not hesitate to invest in their team’s wellness. Because of their natural affinity towards employee well-being, they know that employee happiness and business success go hand-in-hand — they believe the real success lies in a happy work culture.

4. Motivates employees through praise and nurturing

What is an affiliative leader’s mantra for motivating their employees? Nurture, praise, repeat. Their teams tend to be motivated to go the extra mile as they are often met with praises, learning opportunities, and flexibility.

5. Gives positive feedback frequently 

Understanding that feedback is critical to the workplace environment, they have a sharp eye for team efforts and are quick to provide positive feedback — especially if their team member has gone above and beyond the scope of their responsibilities.

The benefits of a people-first approach to leadership

Have you ever felt motivated to go above and beyond because of good leadership? It goes without saying that there is a clear correlation between manager behavior and employee performance. When good leadership is in place, the impact is felt throughout the entire company. Here are some benefits that come with affiliative leadership.

1. Increases employee trust

Employees open up more to leaders who they feel truly care about them. The traits of affiliative leaders will naturally create trust with employees. Positive gestures and opportunities for nurturing feedback will break down barriers and inspire employees to speak up about issues and share their ideas. 

2. Develops tighter-knit teams 

Affiliative leaders are aces at building strong, close-knit teams and collaborative environments. Their people-oriented approach creates unity within the workplace, which provides employees with a sense of community. This sense of belonging and connectedness ultimately reduces employee turnover and increases productivity and job satisfaction.

3. Fosters freedom, flexibility, and creative ideas 

This leadership style promotes creative freedom. It empowers workers to use their imagination to discover new ways of accomplishing goals and solving problems. By creating more laid-back and comfortable work environments, team members feel more comfortable speaking up and expressing fresh ideas.

4. Boosts employee morale 

When employees are encouraged to express their opinions, feelings, and creative ideas, they feel they are being heard and valued for the contributions they make to the company. This ultimately boosts their desire to perform well and to contribute more to their work. 

5. Builds resilience. 

Need to overcome an impactful event? Under an affiliative leader’s guidance, the team often finds it easier to bounce back from the event due to his/her positivity and flexibility during periods of transition. This helps mitigate potential emotional challenges during change.

Affiliative leadership in action

It’s the responsibility of leaders to lead to steer the team’s ship. This includes creating an environment where employees are happy and motivated to put their best foot forward. Otherwise, you may be met with an unhappy employee — and unhappiness is contagious. Here are a few methods you can take to boost employee morale. 

Check in regularly with one-on-ones

One-on-ones are a dedicated time for an employee and their manager to touch base on work, career development and growth. Employees need to be honest with themselves and open to feedback for a check-in to be successful. Paralleling in importance, these meetings are also great opportunities for employers to do a pulse check on their employee’s well-being. Candidly discussing morale, mental health, and social wellness will let an employee know that they’re valued, are part of a team, and that there’s a support system for them to lean on during tough times.

“We put a lot of effort into our one-to-ones. We try to make them not about status, not about a project, but about who are you as a person. What do you value right now? Why are you here at work? What is motivating you? What is challenging you?”

-Katie Womersley, VP of Engineering at Buffer

Communicate with transparency and empathy

Being transparent with the company’s progress, goals and actions — especially during times of trouble — will build trust within your employees. Employers also need to keep in mind the speed at which they communicate with their employees. Sometimes, delayed information can be just as damaging as wrong information. 

Leaders also need to combine transparent communication with empathy. When you have empathy, you can step into a person’s shoes and understand what they’re feeling. Having this skill allows you to communicate your ideas in a way that makes sense to them.

Foster a culture of feedback

When the feedback culture is strong, employees know that their voices are being heard and valued. This culture welcomes open and honest feedback and uses it to foster the growth of individuals, teams, and businesses. Sustaining a positive feedback culture can happen when employees see their comments and suggestions come to life. As an employer, you don’t have to agree with everything that is being suggested by your employees but it is vital to recognize the suggestions publicly and to show that you heard them.

Engage in team-building exercises and activities

Team-building activities can be an impactful way to develop collaboration and trust and build rapport. Any way you can help your staff feel involved and connected is a major win for the morale of a team.

Activities you can do in person (as long as there’s no global pandemic preventing you from doing so):

Activities you can host if you’re remote:

  • Virtual games night (Jackbox games, anyone?)
  • Trivia Night
  • Virtual happy hour
  • Fantasy football tournament
  • Virtual talent show

Recognize employee achievements

A surefire way to keep your workforce motivated is to give thanks to employees for a job well done. Making them feel recognized for their accomplishments through reinforcement can go a long way. Employees will feel empowered in their ability to contribute to your company when you foster an environment in which excellent work is appreciated. Keep in mind that recognition doesn’t always have to come from the top. It’s something that everyone is responsible for. In fact, leaders should focus on building a culture of recognition company-wide, which will empower employees to engage in peer-to-peer and 360-degree recognition.

The power of putting your people first

An organization with high employee morale is an organization that has the opportunity to grow continually. The affiliative leadership style can evoke a lot of positive emotions that boost ownership, well-being, trust and collaboration. Employers can develop a people-first approach to leadership by being empathetic and connecting with their emotions and vulnerabilities. Recognize the efforts of your team and give praise to their contributions to the company. Otherwise, your employees may feel dehumanized or devalued, which will ultimately impact your business success.

Shrad Rao Wagepoint

Shrad Rao is the CEO of Wagepoint, an online payroll software company. He initially sought a career in journalism but opted to be the leader of the friendliest team in the world instead. Some say he might be Batman — well, it’s only him saying that so we don’t actually believe him — or do we?