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The Leaders New Relationships

Leaders are going to need to cultivate and build new kinds of relationships in the coming years if their organisations are to thrive.

Leaders are going to have to see ‘whole’ people rather than simply through the lens of a role, metrics, or mechanical mechanisms.

Leadership is not when people are obligated to follow you.

It isn’t about hierarchy and being obliged to follow you. That’s management.

Leadership is when people choose to follow you.

Leadership is about choosing to do new and better things and people still choose to follow you.

“The past 18 months have changed the way that leaders will have to view, build, and nurture relationships if people are going to choose, rather than being forced to follow, their new and better way of doing things. It’s not just about their relationships, but all relationships.” – Ben Maynard


According to McKinsey & Co, because “the virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where work takes place, at least for some people.”

In essence, Covid-19 has levelled the playing field for knowledge workers.

Geographic factors are less of a factor than they have ever been before.

Companies can choose remote workers from anywhere in the world and tap into a wider talent pool, which means that knowledge workers are experiencing a greater depth of opportunity.

Salaries and day rates are becoming homogenized.

In the past, an individual who worked in Edinburgh would be paid significantly less than a knowledge worker based in London. With remote working, earning opportunities are equal regardless of where your geographic location may be.

In terms of competitors, a greater number of people and companies are able to provide products and services in new markets than ever before.

Scrum training is a great example of this.

Increased Scrum certified courses being made available from India have effectively brought the price down on training within the UK.

A greater diversity in organisations is a result of this new remote work trend.

As people from all around the world join organisations in different locations, the breadth and depth of diversity has brought a wide range of benefits to everyone in the organisation.

People are also working different hours. Some are flexible, others are simply in different time zones.

As a consequence, leaders need to get more personal.

I think this has always been the case, but it’s simply amplified given the current economic and social climate.

A view on what needs to change.

Behaviourist Perspective

A lot of how we have led has been based upon a behaviourist perspective. A deterministic cause and effect (stimulus and response) to reinforce desired behaviours and eliminate undesirable ones.

The problem with this approach is that we are not dogs being taught to sit.

A Carrot and stick approach are no longer applicable.

Its deterministic and quiet often people are not.

It views people as highly predictable entities subject to cause and effect. It assumes that if I do ‘X’ then ‘Y’ is a predetermined response.

But people and environments are more complex than that.

I worked with a remote team in Delhi and was based out of London. I found that after agreeing to experiments and work to be done, I would observe that the response was completely different to what I anticipated.

The reason for this is because I wasn’t with them.

I couldn’t see what was going on.

I couldn’t see the influence of other leaders and managers on the team. The influences that made them change their behaviours.

With so many of us now working remote, observing or understanding a response to the types of measures, constraints, etc. that we put in place is much harder.

Ironically, because we can’t see the effects of the measures we are putting in place we are adding more and more metrics and mechanical mechanisms to help understand what is happening.

Adding more metrics and mechanical mechanisms slowly grinds people down.

Given that there is so much more freedom to work anywhere in the world and for organisations that treat people incredibly well, people simply won’t stick around in organisations that continue to treat them this way.

I’m not suggesting that this is anything new, it’s simply that given the changing environment, it’s now more important than ever that leaders develop new and different relationships with people.

This behaviourist approach is very similar to what is known as Theory X.

Theory X

Managers who believe employees operate in this manner are more likely to use rewards or punishments as motivation. Due to these assumptions, Theory X concludes the typical workforce operates more efficiently under a hands-on approach to management.

Theory X doesn’t see the whole human being.

It doesn’t take into consideration the human element of our workforce. All it sees is behaviours. And because of this, I don’t believe it has a place in the future.

Humble Leadership

I found this book, ‘Humble Leadership’ by Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein, at the beginning of the pandemic and it has significantly altered my view of leadership, my life, and the relationships I invest in.

In my opinion, this book is an essential read for all of us.

The biggest takeaway from this book was the idea of different ‘levels of relationship’ that we can cultivate and build.

And what I discovered through reading the book is that the way we have been working doesn’t work well in knowledge working environments. It doesn’t work to create psychologically safety. 

The book put labels to things and put a great deal of effort into explaining the different levels of relationship, what it means for organisations, and what we can do to change.

The book describes relationships as falling into one of four levels.

Level Minus 1

Relationship Level Minus 1 is cold, unnecessary, and has no place in the modern world. It is characterized by total, impersonal domination and coercion.

A great example of this is the kinds of relationships between illegal migrants and the companies that exploit them.

They are forced to work in horrific conditions with very little pay and live under the threat of being reported to authorities for illegal immigration should they complain or fail to work to the standards being set by their employers.

This is forcing people to work, against their will, and they have no say or power to change their working conditions or environment.

People are barely seen as human; they are instead considered to be the lowest of the low and don’t qualify for human rights such as dignity and respect.

Level Zero

“Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership… If you don’t understand that you work for your mislabeled ‘subordinates’, then you know nothing of leadership. You know only tyranny.” – Dee Hock

Level zero is all about control. It’s the level of relationship that should never be found in a democratic society or meritocracy. It’s a hallmark of autocracy.

What Dee Hock is ultimately saying in her powerful quote is that leadership is not about people working for you, it’s about you working for your people.

Level 1

This level of relationship often depends on a visionary, charismatic leader to overcome the apathy or resistance that will build up in purely transactional, ‘professionally distant’, role-based relationships.

This is the classic ‘people as a commodity’ or ‘resource’ type of thinking that so many leaders seem to be complicit to.

Hierarchies seem to naturally create and value level 1 relationships.

These are characterized by transactional and rule-based supervision and most forms of ‘professional’ helping relationships.

What we notice in these kinds of environments is that people become very competitive and don’t value working as a team. It’s all about them executing their role to perfection.

In a Level 1 relationship, there are no perceived benefits to collaboration because the sole measure of performance is how well you are executing against your job role.

These kinds of relationships do have a place. Professional coaching is a great example of this.

You aren’t looking to become friends with your clients, and you aren’t looking to break the professional ‘air’ of a coach. You are a professional and you are looking to help them.

The same applies for doctors and lawyers and dentists.

There are certain rules and ethics and boundaries that are necessary for both parties to thrive and benefit from the relationship. So, for those kinds of relationships, a level 1 relationship is both apt and fine.

But when we are speaking about an environment where people’s intelligence and creativity are valued, environments where we need flexibility and to realise the full potential of the individuals we both serve and work with, this kind of relationship falls short.

We need people to be whole and to be respected as a whole person if we are going to have them solve increasingly complex problems and unleash their creativity and passion.

The Case for Change

The world is rapidly changing and these traditional approaches to ‘relationships’ fit less today than they ever have before.

  • Level 1 relationships, in isolation, cannot cope with the world as it is now. Also, they fail to see people as whole individuals and ignore the relationships between people.
  • People desire and demand flexibility. This challenges Level 1 relationships that focus simply on rules and roles.
  • People need time to grieve and cope with the changes in work and social values. Level 1 relationships struggle to flex to this.
  • Complexity is increasing exponentially and to deal with this we need people to speak their minds, take initiative, and solve problems in increasingly better ways.

We know that if we work together, we can achieve greater things than if we work as individuals.

Further, when we think of silos and rigid job descriptions, we don’t create environments where people have the freedom to collaborate, discover and create. They simply focus on execution against their rigid, box-like job role.

Level 1 relationships are not only designed to create but also to sustain hierarchical styles of leadership. In the 21st Century, it is simply too complex for any one person to know the answer or be able to actively tell other people how to solve the most compelling problems they face.

A team will always outperform a lone wolf in a complex environment.

Leaders and Managers need to build new relationships with a humanist approach.

The new world we find ourselves in requires that we view people as whole beings. Leaders must be empathetic and work harder to create psychological safety in working environments.

Whole People

Considering what happens in the ‘in-between’ times. Understanding what is happening in people’s personal lives and how that impacts their performance. Making judgement calls and allowances for that. Seeing people as whole empowers you to deal with them using a humanistic approach.


Accurate, empathetic understanding and listening allows leaders to create psychological safety. Having a positive regard for your people leads to safe environments where people can collaborate and create to their full potential.

Psychological Safety

As we know, creating psychological safety enables you to get to people’s truth. Those truths lead to breakthroughs. Those breakthroughs lead to competitive advantage and an environment of continuous improvement that empowers people to consistently delight customers.

A Humanistic approach aligns very much with systems thinking because it considers the whole, dynamic system and seeks to optimise for the whole rather than at specific junctions that focus exclusively on behaviours.

The humanistic approach emphasizes the personal worth of the individual, the centrality of human values, and the creative, active nature of human beings.


The humanistic approach is optimistic and focuses on the noble human capacity to overcome hardship, adversity, pain, and despair.

Makes things better

People are intrinsically good and have an innate need to make themselves and the world better.

What I’m building up to is that there is a 4th level of relationships that works more on building personal relationships. Focuses on the humanistic approach to unleash people’s creativity and full potential.

Level 2 Relationships

Level 2 relationships are characterized by personal, co-operative, trust-based relationships as in friendships and effective teams. It doesn’t mean that we must become friends with everyone, it speaks instead to the spirit of friendship.

Level 2 relationships means that we need to be comfortable sharing what is on our mind and feel respected as a whole person rather than as a resource.

It means that we are building a meaningful network of relationships and it is suggested that there are only so many social connections we can maintain at any one time.

It means that we value whole people, cooperation, collaboration and learning over competitive individualism.

Note: Level 2 does not mean we have to be friends. It means that we learn from friendships and use this to develop relationships. Relationships where people are comfortable being themselves, comfortable speaking their mind, and comfortable to contribute to their full potential.

What does this mean in practice?

These 3 tips will help leadership develop level 2 relationships

  • Involve people from all over the organisation in the design of strategies. This doesn’t mean that you need to do what people suggest, it simply means that you must include them on the journey.
  • Study group dynamics and use this knowledge to deal with hierarchy that naturally creates Level 1 relationships and limits the damage from competitive individualism.
  • Further reduce competitive individualism by rotating your leadership team members between different parts of the organisation. Make the whole organisation, not just parts of it, everyone’s concern.

How could you invest your time as a leader more effectively?

  • 40 – 50% of the time, focusing on leadership style, behaviours, and strategy.
  • 20 – 30% of the time, focusing on working with their direct team and building level 2 relationships, acting as a great role model.
  • The rest of the time, focusing on getting to know people, practicing ‘Go-See’ and letting people know what you are about.

How many level 2 relationships can we handle?

There’s a difference between friends and acquaintances. Dunbar’s number of 150 meaningful social interactions is often misinterpreted in the Agile world. I’ve spoken to Dunbar personally regarding the number of social interactions we can have, and his feedback confirms the misinterpretation.

According to Dunbar, we can have 150 meaningful social interactions with close friends and family and another 350 meaningful social interactions with acquaintances.

Most of your business and professional relationships will fall into the category of acquaintances but you will also find that you naturally develop a few close friendships along the journey.

Leaders could,

  1. Focus on interactions. Make it individually rewarding, enjoyable and mandatory for people to cooperate.
  2. Be Leaderful. Have everyone understand where and how they can lead, teach them the levels, and help them apply through active role-modelling.
  3. Care less about role definitions. Defining a role, whilst not without value, often leads to level zero behaviours.

These are simply tips, not a playbook. For many people, the journey to seeing whole people and nurturing new types of relationships is characterised by the obstacles in the short term.

If we are to thrive in the 21st Century, we need to develop better relationships and work from a position of trust, collaboration, and creativity rather than the old style of rules and roles.

We need to shift away from the traditional forms of management and into the realm of leadership.

Leadership that inspires others to follow a vision and purpose with the intention of collaborating toward creating and sustaining environments where teams and individuals can thrive.

Visit https://www.sheev.co.uk for more insights into LeSS, Feature Teams and powerful leadership.

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