Why Do My Leaders Need to Understand Relationship Mapping?

Your leaders need relationship-building skills to develop positive employee relationships. These include skills like coaching, listening, conflict management, networking, and trust-building. Building relationships can't be a random effort for your managers and supervisors managing employee teams and cross-functional responsibilities for successful leadership. Successful leaders spend most of their time ensuring people have what they need to succeed in terms of skills, resources, training, and opportunities. But how do leaders know they are building all the right relationships? 

Relationship mapping is a tool for leadership success. A relationship map is often thought of as a method for identifying the relationship of organizational leaders, key stakeholders, or business functions to customers, other businesses, or community members. Still, it can also help your leaders identify absent or weak internal relationships that need developing to promote employee and team success, strengthen inclusivity through the evaluation of professional networks, identify relationships that foster collaboration, build relationships across hybrid teams, and deliver other important information needed for effective leadership.  

What is Relationship Mapping? 

Your leaders depend on other people for success, especially their employees. It's why there is a focus on soft skills development and hard skills. As Sarah Scala discusses on the ProjectHR podcast, leaders need high emotional intelligence quotients to make better decisions and build stronger teams. Building strong teams is the goal of relationship mapping. It not only helps your current managers and supervisors. The process is valuable for people who move into leadership positions and must proactively develop positive relationships personally and between the team and organizational members. 

A relationship map is a visual representation of logical organizational connections. It's used to picture relationships between organizations and individuals, between an organizational function and its customers or potential clients or vendors, between the organization and communities, between organizational functions, or between a leader and internal team members. It can serve many purposes, but this discussion is on identifying internal relationships for purposes of building strong positive employee relations and building other relationships your leader can leverage for team success.   

Think of it as a flowchart for identifying relationships, so your leaders can better understand the dynamics of people interactions and leverage them for success. It is a collaborative tool that:  

  • Identifies how people are linked in a system or who they frequently interact with 
  • Shows how relationship value is created through connections 
  • Identifies the nature of the connections and the interactions 
  • Identifies communication channels, including the direction of communication and the modes of communication 
  • Identifies communication gaps 
  • Showcases the strength of a network of people, demonstrating if a small number of people are supporting the network 
  • Identifies opportunities for relationship growth 
  • It helps leaders identify ways to leverage existing and new relationships to move forward 

Every team has social dynamics that impact the workplace. The relationship map can uncover relevant connections that can direct a leader's efforts in creating new relationships or strengthening existing relationships. The linkages identified can go in any direction, so they are not hemmed in by traditional hierarchies. As organizations get flatter, relationship mapping becomes more valuable. It exposes links between people on a team and across the organization that aren't fully recognized or appreciated on a traditional organizational chart. 

relationship mapping

Beyond the Traditional Purposes of Relationship Mapping  

There are many benefits to relationship mapping beyond identifying communication patterns and interactions. For example, it identifies indirect influence patterns and the frequency of interactions. It can also identify key decision makers and provide opportunities for increased employee engagement. This information can be used to:  

  • Improve relationships on a team to increase morale 
  • Identify paths for improving team productivity.  
  • Improve the organization of team networks to meet shared goals 
  • Identify relationships needing development for better problem-solving. 
  • Identify why a change initiative isn't delivering desired results by looking at the process through the lens of people management. 

In the MIT Sloan Management Review article Mapping Exclusion in the Organization, the authors discuss the difficulties tech companies experience in increasing gender diversity. One of the barriers women face is exclusion from professional networks. After studying organizational networks at dozens of companies, the researchers concluded the adage that says who you know is more important than what you know still applies to career progression. 

The researchers presented a global computer hardware company case study that used relationship mapping to build a more gender-inclusive organization. A relationship map identified informal and formal relationships to reveal patterns of exclusion and exclusion that were hidden from view. One of the researchers' important points is that the "typical measures of DEI success, such as employee demographics and employee engagement surveys, ignore a key predictor of career advancement and well-being: workplace relationships." Relationship mapping adds to the knowledge base developed through the other measures. 

Can relationship mapping help you create an environment where unions are unneccessary? Yes, it can, by identifying people of influence, decision makers, and key stakeholders. If your "problem" is understanding the informal relationships that influence the chances of unionization, the relationship map can help. It can identify the informal sources of influence that may support unions or are likely workforce ambassadors for staying union-free.  

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Improve Communication Among Hybrid Workplaces

Can relationship mapping help develop a communication plan for a hybrid workforce? Yes, it can by identifying the specific relationships among employees. During the pandemic, many employee relationships were strained or broken as some people worked remotely and others worked in the office.

A study of Microsoft employees working remotely found that cross-functional collaboration decreased by 25 percent as interactions within groups increased. Remote workers interacted mostly with immediate colleagues. However, Ron Carucci, co-founder and managing partner at Navalent writes in Rebuilding Relationships Across Teams in a Hybrid Workplace that "fragmentation isn't a byproduct of remote work. It results from a lack of intentional bridgebuilding to link discrete groups and regions." Relationship mapping can help with intentional bridgebuilding.  

relationship map

How to Develop Relationship Maps 

Relationship maps are a network pictorial in which arrows are drawn to identify relationships. There are software programs available today that can simplify map development if drawing by hand is too difficult due to the size of the map. Many companies collect data for analysis to better identify current and potential relationships. The process involves the following basic steps.   

  • Identify your goal, which could be a project, improving communication among department employees, increasing inclusivity for diverse employees, initiating change, etc. 
  • Draw a box for each person involved, including top management, decision makers, key account managers, departmental peers, employees, and functional reports.  
  • Look for causal relationships and draw lines and directional arrows between boxes for formal and informal relationships. 
  • For each person and in the context of the goal, identify each employee's goals, responsibilities, what is needed from the person, and the best way to communicate with the person. 
  • Analyze the results and mark areas for improvement 
  • Develop and implement an action plan, even if you need to start small based on the current needs of the organization.

The lines can indicate the status of the relationship. For example, a bold black line means a strong relationship exists, while a dotted black line could indicate a problem relationship. A thin red line of x's could indicate a weak relationship. You can identify people based on the type and strengths of their relationships, always within the context of the goal. If your goal is to improve team collaboration, then weak relationships are addressed. You can identify influencers by the strong black lines. The issue with influencers is that they have a lot of informal power that may or may not be an asset. For example, employees who are influencers can promote unionizing or be your organization's greatest allies for sharing the company's philosophy on staying union-free 

Relationship Mapping for Leadership Skills Improvement 

An important benefit of relationship mapping is that it requires your leaders to have the social-emotional capacities to think through the roles and connections of each employee. The relationship map's full value is realized when the results are analyzed, and an action plan is developed to improve relationship lines, leverage communication channels to achieve goals, or realize other end goals. The action plan depends, of course, on the project, initiative, or goals but almost always includes leadership development and employee training.  

Relationship maps can be an excellent tool for existing leaders or people stepping into new leadership roles. The manager or supervisor can identify goals and create one relationship map for each goal. The map identifies key persons and provides a better understanding for their roles in achieving goals. This guides leadership style, and has tremendous benefits in establishing communication systems, employee training and development, identifying biases, and so on. The relationship map becomes a leadership skills development tool.  

There is no single way to create relationship maps. You begin with the basic principles and adapt them to your needs. As you create the visual chart, consider things like where relationships need development to close gaps, how existing relationships can be strengthened, and whether expectations are clear between people. Whether you want to create an environment where unions are simply unnecessary or improve direct relationships with employees, the relationship map can help. Everything is always about people. 

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.