Honest Relationships – the key to a successful team
For many leaders, it’s a daily reality: They are under a great deal of pressure. This is no...
Resilience is being widely talked about. But what exactly is resilience, and how can authentic
relationships help strengthen it? Furthermore, how can coaches support their clients in cultivating
Resilience is the ability to return to one's original form after a period of external stressors (cf.
Reidlinger, 2023). Initially a term from materials management, today resilience describes the human
capacity to handle stress and high-pressure situations effectively. Resilience does not mean rigidly
enduring the storm – this would be more of a form of inflexibility that can easily lead to a sudden
collapse. Resilience is rather the ability to adapt under pressure and then, thanks to inner resilience,
return to one's natural center. In short, the more resilient we are, the less permanent stress or
unexpectedly high pressure can permanently affect us.
Resilience can be learned as it consists of a series of effective factors that form a natural shield for
us. One of these protective factors is authentic relationships (Ebermann, 2023). In human
development, social relationships are an essential component for survival. No other species depends
on external assistance for as long as humans do after birth. Over millennia, humans have continually
expanded their social skills, which modern societies, in particular, benefit from. In these societies,
new solutions can be developed at record speed because we are willing to tackle things together.
Authenticity in Relationships
However, relationships are not inherently resilience-promoting. We all know of relationships that
can be excessively burdensome. To increase our resilience, relationships need authenticity. What
does this mean? In authentic relationships, the participants do not have to pretend, meaning they
do not act contrary to their inner (authentic) needs, beliefs, and values. These are relationships in
which both sides can openly communicate what they expect and what they contribute. Hierarchical
situations often lack this equal footing. We are familiar with the image of the cyclist who bows up
and pedals down. We also hear reports of top-level executives in management or politics who
publicly advocate for issues after difficult discussions behind closed doors, even when they are not
personally convinced. To manage this, valuable energy is expended on emotional acting that does
not reflect the true emotional state. What is known in English as "surface acting" (Zapf, 2002) can
deplete the energy tank over time.
One way to replenish the tank is through authentic relationships with trusted individuals or coaches
with whom challenges can be addressed openly and sometimes ruthlessly but always constructively.
Leadership circles, which are regular meetings with other executives facing similar challenges as
oneself, can also be helpful. Speaking openly about challenges under professional guidance can be a
valuable way to receive candid feedback and fresh insights, promoting resilience.
Another positive effect of leadership circles is the role one plays as a mentor among peers, being
there for others and being able to help. The importance of care is well-known from experiments
conducted by social scientist Ellen Langer with her colleague Judith Rodin (Langer & Rodin, 1976).
They gave newcomers in a nursing home the choice to select a plant for their room and take care of
it. The control group in the same nursing home received no special task. After three weeks, the
proportion of participants who described themselves as happier in the "care group" was twice as
high as in the control group - a sign that responsibility and the opportunity to care for other living
beings, even if it's just a potted plant, can have direct positive effects. These health-promoting
feedback effects are also effective in leadership circles.
Authentic Relationships and Coaching
For the development of authentic relationships in coaching, systemic work offers a great wealth of
methods. Besides, there are several other ways for coaches to strengthen authentic relationships.
Here's a small selection:
Assessment of Social and Communicational Behavior
As a coach, you can work with your client to assess their social and communicational behavior. One
method for this is using established diagnostics to determine comprehensive personality profiles. A
suitable measurement instrument for this purpose is the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), which
can provide clients with valuable insights into how their social and communicational behavior is
perceived by others. Hogan divides this inventory into two dimensions: "Social Affability" and
Social Affability, in simplified terms, represents the quantitative aspect of social behavior, indicating
the perceived extent to which a person actively seeks many or few social interactions. It is
significantly correlated with the well-known social constructs of extraversion and introversion
(Hogan & Hogan, 2007). On the other hand, Interpersonal Sensitivity provides information about the
observed qualitative aspects of communication behavior, which may include factors like tactfulness
and interpersonal perceptiveness.
Why can this diagnostic tool be helpful in coaching? When the coach understands the client's
primary approach to relationship building, they can tailor the coach-client relationship accordingly.
For example, a client who scores low on the dimension of Interpersonal Sensitivity may be perceived
by others as direct and clear (which can also be seen as tough and abrasive). For such clients, clear
communication is part of an authentic relationship, while they may perceive diplomatic packaging of
messages as "beating around the bush." This potential adaptation of communicational behavior can
help coaches be more effective with a broader range of clients.
Understanding Behavior in Situations of Pressure
Hogan provides another measurement tool called the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), which can
provide a more comprehensive understanding of the client's personality. It sheds light on the "dark"
personality dimensions that tend to emerge, especially in stressful situations (Hogan & Hogan,
2009). These dimensions are called "dark" because they often involve blind spots that only become
apparent in situations of pressure and can lead to extreme or uncontrolled behaviors.
Revealing this behavior in situations of pressure allows coaches to address a crucial question in their
work with clients: How can I build authentic relationships not only externally but also internally? In
other words, when it comes to fostering authentic relationships, it's often essential to recognize and
actively influence the dark side of one's personality. This involves the inner dynamics as known from
the work of various therapeutic approaches, commonly referred to as "parts work." In a simplified
form, these methods have already made their way into coaching (e.g., Fox, 2013). What unites all
these approaches is the intention to capture the relevant facets of an individual's personality for
coaching and to transform the client's inner system into a new form of interaction, promoting
personal growth. If someone cannot authentically accept themselves as a whole, they will repeatedly
confront their suppressed personality aspects when interacting with others, leading to consistent
internal and external conflicts.
Authentic relationship building also includes handling conflicts constructively, as unresolved conflicts
can otherwise become a source of perceived relationship avoidance. It's called "perceived" because
although extreme cases may result in a complete breakdown of communication, this doesn't reflect
the true emotional reality. Those familiar with systemic constellations know that conflicting parties
often share surprisingly close emotional connections: Conflict can emotionally bond individuals as
strongly as friendships or romantic relationships, depending on its intensity. These emotions
continually fuel the conflict until interest in it diminishes, often through a compensatory action
within the system that restores the balance disrupted by the conflict trigger. Upon closer
examination, conflicts are an opportunity to elevate interaction within a system to a new level and
promote growth within the system (Simon, 2018). Conflict resolution can, therefore, be an enriching
experience in relationships.
How can a coach use conflict as a source of authentic relationships? Conflict resolution often
involves slowing down, which helps break emotional automatic responses (e.g., seeing red). Once a
coach has facilitated this, delving into the values underlying the conflict is a promising path. When
clients recognize the often-positive intentions of their conflict partners and reach the level marked
by shared values among the conflicting parties, new solutions become possible that were previously
blocked by the hardened relationship. This relationship experience can be groundbreaking for many
Authentic relationships are closely tied to past relationship experiences. Exploring one's own
biography is an excellent way to identify patterns in relationship building and systematically bring
them to consciousness through writing.
This exploration can encompass relationship experiences dating back to early childhood. It includes
interactions with authority figures like parents or teachers as well as experiences with siblings,
friends, and other significant individuals. How were relationships initiated? How were they
deepened and continually renewed? What constitutes authentic relationships for the client?What
distinguishes them from less authentic relationships? What needs to happen for a relationship to
A therapeutically trained coach can (without crossing the boundaries of therapy) go even deeper and
help dissolve potential fears or deeper barriers related to relationship building. One of the methods
in this field, for example, is the imaginary establishment of ideal parental figures (Brown & Elliott,
2016). But even coaches without a therapeutic background can provide valuable assistance by
helping clients uncover patterns in their professional bonding behavior, such as with superiors or
colleagues. It is these hidden stories that, once brought to light, can become treasured assets and
have a lasting impact on clients.
The Future Ideal Self
Coaches can also guide clients' biographical work into the future through imagination. They harness
the power of the ideal self (Boyatzis & Akrivou, 2006). In coaching, besides imagination, one can also
use vision boards to visualize their future self. When viewed through the lens of authentic
relationship building, differences from the present self can be worked out.
The most effective distinctions for clients often occur on physical, emotional, and mental levels. This
means allowing the client to imagine their future self in a situation that demands a heightened
quality of authentic relationships. Subsequently, clients are encouraged to feel what is different or
new in their body, how their emotions change, and how their thinking transforms when emerging
from this future self. Additionally, there are clients who can benefit greatly from exploring spiritual
differences (whom or what they feel more connected to). These four areas of differences (physical,
emotional, mental, spiritual) can serve as a source of new inspiration and guidance for future client
behavior towards greater authenticity.
Chris Argyris has influenced generations of coaches with his theory of Action Science and its practical
application through the Left-Hand Column Exercise (Argyris, 1995). In this exercise, clients are
encouraged to analyze conflict-laden conversations by documenting not only what is actually said
(right-hand column) but also their own thinking (left-hand column). This type of analysis helps to
understand where the discrepancy between what is said and what is thought is particularly
significant. In other words, the filters between thoughts and spoken words are also authenticity
filters that consume energy (like "surface acting"). This approach is only moderately effective in the
long term because pent-up tensions eventually "break out" under constant pressure, which can be
akin to an earthquake, not only linguistically: beneath the surface, inner tensions grow until they can
no longer be restrained in a moment of weakness, resulting in shifts in the tectonics, i.e., the
relationship with others, which often changes significantly after a major eruption. Making clients
aware of the differences between what is said and what is thought can be quite relieving for many
clients and helps them observe themselves anew in various interactions and adjust accordingly.
Roger Schwarz, a former student of Chris Argyris, has further developed this framework and
proposed a range of effective intervention possibilities (Schwarz, 2017) to enable shared learning in
interactions. With the assistance of coaches, aspects of one's own behavior can be made conscious,
and underlying values and assumptions can be deliberately addressed, which can trigger a new
behavioral pattern. Key values in relationship building, for example, include transparency, curiosity,
Coach as a Role Model
Coaches can serve as role models for building authentic relationships. Because they are committed
to the growth of their clients, they can combine authenticity, curiosity, wholeness, transparency, and
solution-oriented approaches in the coaching process or when supporting the client in a way that
can represent a new form of relationship experience for them.
Listening is one of the most important skills in coaching. Works by Nancy Kline (2011) and C. Otto
Scharmer (2018) demonstrate that clients who feel seen in their potential and wholeness can
develop solutions solely through the deep listening of the coach. The ability to listen does not
develop automatically in coaches but requires constant training in their own perception skills.
Authentic Relationships in Teams
The work on authentic relationships is also possible within teams, starting with tools that reveal
underlying team dynamics, addressing conflicts, team biographical work, developing an imagined
ideal team, or practicing new relationship patterns. Leadership teams are particularly successful
when they undergo a transformation necessary for their organization. This often serves as a catalyst
for successful change efforts because it is perceived as authentic, not imposed artificially from above
but demonstrated through action.
The work on authentic relationship building, like any change, requires energy. Without the
fundamental motivation of clients to invest this energy to achieve greater satisfaction and resilience
through a transformed relationship life, no coaching will be successful. However, with the
appropriate motivation, so much is possible that it often feels like a breakthrough in clients'
professional and personal lives.
In summary, it can be said that leaders who find ways to build and maintain authentic relationships
not only strengthen themselves but also have a fortifying effect on their surroundings. This, in turn,
enhances their protective abilities to handle the challenges of these times with greater composure
Kussai El-Chichakli is a management consultant, certified executive and team coach, as well as a naturopath for psychotherapy. With 20 years of experience as a leader in international corporations and a Master's in MBCT from the University of Oxford, he has extensive training in resilience. At Leadership Choices, he leads the Leadership Choices Academy, one of the leading providers of solutions for executives and organizations in the field of resilience.