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Affiliative Leadership: Can an emotive approach lead to success?

Future of work
Team photo from Montreux, Switzerland

Numerous leadership styles have been developed and implemented by leaders all over the world. Each style differs slightly in the approach and can impact factors such as productivity, morale and even the emotional health of a team.

One approach that focuses on harmony and balance is an affiliative leadership style.

Leaders who adopt this style prioritise the well-being and happiness of their team members, with the aim of building strong emotional bonds and a sense of community.

But does an affiliative leadership approach still get results? Are their teams as productive as those under different leadership styles? Are there downsides to an emotion-lead team?

These are all questions we answer below so you can decide whether an affiliative approach is for you.

What is affiliative leadership?

Affiliative Leadership sees teams focusing on and building connections, to establish an environment centred on trust, harmony, and open communication, which differs from other leadership styles.

affiliative leadership

Merriam-Webster defines affiliative as the desire to create emotional and social bonds with others โ€” a key trait of affiliative leadership.

In 2002, Daniel Goleman shared 'The Six Leadership Styles' of common leadership styles to adopt. In this, affiliative leadership is the style of putting people first. At the base, is employee trust and community, which is built through connections and healthy conflict resolution.

Instead of prioritising targets and results, the relationship between team members and leaders is at the forefront. Believe it or not, this shift in focus can lead to improvements in team performance, as stronger mutual trust encourages an increase in productivity and increased job satisfaction.

This is one of the more emotional leadership styles as it focuses on and builds the emotional intelligence of not only the leader but also their team.

Affiliative leadership is not all sunshine and rainbows though, it is a careful balance to get right.

On one hand, it's making sure team members feel heard and encouraged to express ideas and concerns freely. On the other hand, leaders need to manage the cohesion of the team and handle any conflicts that arise.

It may seem similar to a democratic leadership style, but they have key differences. With an affiliative style, decisions are still made by the leader, with the well-being of the team in mind, whereas a democratic approach is a collective decision-making process.

The main characteristics of an affiliative leadership style

Emphasis on relationship and collaboration

With affiliative leadership, leaders and team members are well-connected. As a leader, you prioritise developing trust and building a sense of security and loyalty among your employees. Each team member should feel valued, heard, safe and understood.

Positive reinforcement

Another key characteristic is using positive reinforcement as a motivational tool.

As an affiliative leader, you encourage your team, celebrate their achievements, and motivate them with positives rather than negatives.

Active listening

Active listening is key to affiliative leadership. As the leader, you maintain continuous communication, encouraging team members to share their thoughts, fears, and ideas freely.

This promotes a sense of safety and acceptance.

Conflict resolution and stress reduction

Resolving conflicts smoothly and reducing stress is essential. Affiliative leaders are adept at managing and mitigating conflicts healthily.

This is done in a way that preserves relationships and maintains harmony.

Focus on team unity

The whole leadership style is centred around team unity. Everyone works towards building strong relationships with colleagues, focusing on open communication and having mutual respect at all times.

Balancing employee feelings and organisational objectives

As an affiliative leader, taking care of employee feelings while also ensuring you're meeting objectives is crucial. They should be of equal priorities and managed alongside each other.

If the team feels supported and connected, they'll be more motivated and productive. Win-win.

Pros and cons of affiliative leadership

Advantages of affiliative leadership

Builds trust

By prioritising the relationships you have with your team, you lay the foundation for a high-trust environment. Trust is fundamental for effective teamwork, as it improves openness, and honesty and lessens conflict.

An affiliative leader has similar moral values to their team and promotes these values through active listening and positive reinforcement.

Boosts morale

With this leadership style, recognising and valuing each employee's contributions is at the heart. It not only boosts individual self-esteem but also creates a culture where each person feels understood and appreciated.

By championing positivity, you create a culture that is comfortable, safe and happy.

Increases loyalty and belonging

The emphasis on emotional bonds goes beyond building a high-performing team. With affiliative leadership, you're creating a sense of belonging among your team members, which acts as a kind of community.

In a workplace where employees feel happy and as though they have genuine bonds with their teammates, they're more likely to show loyalty to the company.

In turn, this reduces staff turnover, reduces attrition rate and boosts overall employee satisfaction and retention rates.

Disadvantages of affiliative leadership

While the benefits of affiliative leadership seem to point to a happy and productive workforce, as with everything, it is worth considering the disadvantages to better understand the full picture.

Insufficient constructive criticism

Affiliative leaders are continuously aiming for harmony and positive relationships, which means that they can potentially struggle to deliver constructive criticism.

The priority of preserving a peaceful work environment can stop affiliative leaders from wanting to share feedback when needed. This can then stunt professional growth and improvements within the team are less likely to be recognised and happen.

Without this constructive feedback, employees remain oblivious to their shortcomings, which can hinder opportunities for employee development and result in a dip in overall efficiency and productivity in their roles and in the wider team.

Performance management

High employee performance can be overlooked in affiliative leadership.

This empathetic and emotionally intelligent approach can unintentionally encourage average performance levels, as the comfort and emotional well-being of the team is placed as a higher priority than the pursuit of ambitious performance goals.

Challenges in high-pressure situations

Affiliative leaders can struggle in high-pressure situations that require decisive and commanding leadership.

The desire to prioritise unity can convince them to use a more collective and democratic course of action, even when the situation requires a more authoritative approach.

In such high-stress scenarios, focusing on an affiliative approach can slow down decision-making processes and reaction times. This can then impair a team's ability to respond to immediate and pressing challenges promptly.

Tips for implementing affiliative leadership

When implementing affiliative leadership, considering personal development needs alongside a culture shift is necessary. Here are our tips for how to reduce friction and implement this leadership style as simply as possible:

  1. Prioritise building relationships: For affiliative leadership, relationships take precedence. Create lots of points of connection for your team, to ensure relationships can be built and can flourish.

The best way to do that is by planning regular company retreats, with a focus on team-building and cohesion.

This private island is ideal for team building. Your team can partake in exciting activities such as clay pigeon shooting, rounders, croquet, cricket and volleyball as well as water sports including boating and fishing. See more about the venue and enquire directly with the team.

  1. Promote open communication: Affiliative leaders encourage dialogues rather than monologues. Provide platforms for open communication allowing all team members to express opinions and ideas freely. Also, schedule regular team meetings where everyone is given the chance to speak and share.
  2. Establish a safe atmosphere: Ensure your team works within an atmosphere free of fear. Show understanding and respect towards everyone's feelings and ideas, so you can reassure your team of a safe work environment. This includes being conscious of and combating workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination of any kind. Even if you don't think affiliative leadership is for you, you should still make sure these things are addressed and handled. No one wants to work in a place where bullying, harassment and discrimination are ignored.
  3. Develop listening skills: Active listening is a critical trait of an affiliative leader. Pay full attention to your team when they speak, taking time to understand their thoughts before responding. Providing constructive feedback based on your understanding encourages continued open communication.
  4. Balance between task orientation and people orientation: While affiliative leadership tends to focus more on relationships, the importance of meeting organisational objectives is still required. Find a balance between caring for employee feelings and striving towards business goals. This looks different for every organisation, so take the time to evaluate what would work and what wouldn't within your organisation.

Incorporating these steps into your action plan can help affiliative leadership thrive. This isn't a one-time thing, it's a process that requires constant reflection and adaptation based on feedback from your team members.

Affiliative leadership examples

Now you have a better understanding of affiliative leadership, it's time to see examples of how it would work.

Example 1: The tech start-up

Scenario: A small tech start-up is experiencing high-stress levels among employees due to tight project deadlines and rapid growth.

Affiliative Leadership in Practice: The CEO, Lisa, decides to start weekly โ€œwellness check-insโ€ where employees can openly discuss their feelings, stressors and make suggestions for improvement.

She also introduces flexible work hours and remote working options to help employees manage their work-life balance better. Lisa frequently expresses appreciation for her teamโ€™s hard work through personalised thank-you notes and small tokens of appreciation.

This approach helps reduce stress and increases employee morale and loyalty.

Example 2: The marketing agency

Scenario: A marketing agency is dealing with the fallout of a major client leaving, causing anxiety and low morale among employees.

Affiliative Leadership in Practice: The agencyโ€™s director, Alex, focuses on rebuilding trust and team morale by arranging โ€œcoffee chatโ€ sessions where employees can discuss their feelings in a relaxed setting.

Alex also introduces a mentorship program pairing junior employees with experienced staff to promote learning and growth.

By showing empathy and providing a platform for open communication, Alex helps the team regain confidence and motivation, leading to innovative solutions and new client acquisitions.

Examples of affiliative leaders

Affiliative leadership isn't a new thing, it's been used by some incredibly successful business people across the world.

1. Howard Schultz - Starbucks

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, is known for his affiliative leadership style. Schultz emphasised the importance of employee welfare and creating a supportive work environment.

He introduced comprehensive healthcare benefits for both full-time and part-time employees and implemented a college tuition reimbursement program.

2. Richard Branson - Virgin Group

Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, is an affiliative leader. Branson places a high value on employee happiness and well-being, believing that a happy workforce leads to better customer service.

He encourages open communication, empowers employees to take risks, and prioritises work-life balance. This approach has helped build a positive corporate culture across the various Virgin companies.

3. Oprah Winfrey - OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network)

Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul and CEO of OWN, demonstrates affiliative leadership through her compassionate and supportive approach.

She is known for creating a work environment where employees feel valued and appreciated. Oprahโ€™s leadership style includes recognising employees' contributions, promoting personal growth, and maintaining a positive, inclusive culture.


Affiliative leadership is a unique approach focused on building emotional bonds and promoting a harmonious work environment. This leadership style puts the well-being and happiness of the team at the forefront and creates a supportive workplace where trust and collaboration thrive.

While it offers significant benefits such as increased morale, loyalty, and overall team cohesion, it also poses challenges, including potential struggles with constructive criticism and high-pressure decision-making.

Incorporating affiliative leadership into your organisation involves ongoing effort and reflection. Prioritising relationships, building open communication, and ensuring a safe, inclusive environment are crucial steps.

As you navigate this leadership style, remember that its success lies in building a collaborative, trusting, and harmonious team capable of achieving collective success.

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