Beyond Transactional Management: how and why to convert to Relational Leadership

Remember the intake form you were asked to complete at a new doctor’s office? Questions like Do you smoke? How often do you exercise? Transactional queries that gather data but inspire no self-reflection; queries asked of everyone, regardless of needs; indifferent questions devoid of care or concern. Mechanical. Transactional.

But imagine if the first question was:

We are committed to serving you to facilitate you in reaching your optimal health. What would you need to see from us to make sure we provide the type of care you deserve?

This not only tells you you’re going to be taken care of, but causes you consider your goals. You automatically trust this group; you feel safe and cared for even before you meet the healthcare provider. Collaborative. Inclusive. Relational.

I believe a relational approach enables a collaboration in which WE generate an outcome that works for everyone and inspires loyalty and creativity. The transactional approach leaves me feeling like a number, like I’m interchangeable with others and need to meet some sort of hidden criteria to get what I deserve.

While there are arguments to be made for each, I personally find the relational approach more effective, kinder, ethical, and more profitable. For those of you who are considering transitioning to a more people-centric style, I’ve got a few ideas. But let me start with personal examples.


I recently had to make several home-improvement purchases. Home Depot and Lowe’s are my local choices. Having had negative experiences with Home Depot before, I decided to call them first to see if they might have changed. My first interaction was with the blasted answering ‘voice’ that kept offering me options they wanted me to choose from but I didn’t want. I ended up screaming at ‘him’ as he wasn’t hearing what I needed (Surely, if you’re going to have a machine pick up the phone make it easy for me!) I finally hung up, called back and said ‘Screen Door’ on the 4th question although ‘he’ kept trying to get a more specific response (I didn’t have one! That’s why I was calling!). Finally he said he’d connect me. I was kept on hold for 10 minutes and finally hung up. I had wasted 20 minutes, become frustrated, and never got what I wanted. I guess they didn’t want my business.

When I called Lowe’s, I got a lovely voice message: “How can I help you today?” When I said I wanted information, it said “Sure. Let me find someone to help you!” A difference already: I felt heard (even by a machine!). When the phone didn’t pick up after just a few unanswered rings I got a message that said, “Sorry for the delay. We’re trying to find someone to help you.” I was connected shortly after that. A woman answered (a real person!): “Hi. This is customer service. I’m Susan. How can I help?” then heard my issues and said, “I’m going to put you through to Amanda. She’s my best person and she’ll take good care of you. Otherwise, call me back. I want to make it work for you.” Ah. She really took care of me. When I later told my contractor I’d prefer buying from Lowe’s he said: “I was going to ask you if you minded that I use them! They’re great. I hate Home Depot. They don’t care about people.” I wonder how much business Home Depot loses because of their transactional practices.

Home Depot made me into a transaction, a faceless number whose needs had to fit into their assumptions. Lowe’s’ people-centric structure – even their automatic messaging – treated me with respect. So simple to make a customer feel like they matter.

Let’s look at the differences within companies.


Working with a large global client recently we discovered two teams solving the same complex problem separately. One hired a consultant to fix the problem; the other took team members off an important project. I suspect they’ll end up with different outcomes and costs, not to mention put disparate systems into the corporation that other departments would have to manage. What’s the cost of the duplication? And what’s the cost of the differences in solutions over time? Hard to be successful when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Here’s another sad story. A friend of mine was on Google’s leadership team. He returned from his vacation to find his entire team (75 people) had been redeployed, and he was put on a wholly different project. He was furious: what happened to all the work he and his team were creating? Why wasn’t he given notice so he could prepare his folks and tie up loose ends of the long-term project they’d been working on? What was he to do with the calls from old team members, angry and confused as to why the group was disbanded? Transactional. The DOing first at all costs. Literally. Oh. And my friend quit. A smart 10-year veteran who created many of the search apps we all use.

Transactional environments are uncompromising: people quickly learn to make no decisions that go outside the lines, then procrastinate when given a deadline due to leadership’s habit of shifting requirements without warning, oblivious to people’s time or workload.

Transactional management too often sees people as disposable ‘things’, merely cogs in a wheel. It leads to

  • a decrease in creativity and problem ownership
  • inefficiency
  • increased cost
  • lost business
  • reduced creativity
  • minimal cooperation, collaboration, or company-wide coherence
  • decreased customer loyalty
  • decreased employee loyalty.

With cost, revenue, and time as the criteria, people are left out. Motivation is by rewards and punishment as management controls and monitors output via numbers. People aren’t invited to share their creativity and ideas as they’re not part of a solution except as operatives. Yet these same people are responsible for carrying the burden of the errors made by leadership. Customers end up fighting for services that prove unsuccessful or incomplete; service reps are not available when customers need help; customers end up leaving and buying from the relational competitors. There’s no win here.

Thirty years ago I was doing Buying Facilitation® training at Bethlehem Steel. There was obviously something wrong going on: the participants were tired, complaining. Seems they’d been given two months to move house and family from major cities around the U.S. to either Burns Harbor, MI, or Sparrows Point, MD, at the time both tiny (and smelly, smoky, loud) steel towns. Two months to sell their homes and buy new ones (and remember: there was no Zillow or Google then to do research), get their kids enrolled in new schools, arrange for pets, pack up their lives, and move. With so little time, the Reps moved on their own. They bought houses with no family approval; they traveled back and forth for months to help get their houses sold, pack up and move, see their families. They were angry: lots of sick time, breakdowns, lateness. Few quotas were met. One man actually became physiologically blind. Four months in and many still lived on their own or had left behind teenagers with neighbors to complete their school year.

I finally told my client he had to meet with the team, listen to their needs and anger, and apologize. My client at first resisted: “But I gave them $5,000 to move! What’s their problem!?” Note: he finally apologized and they all – grown men (mostly) – cried together. But it cost Beth Steel time, money, and attrition as long-standing members quit. Not to mention months of unhappiness, upended lives, and reduced profits.


When I was hired to train Buying Facilitation® throughout the global California Closets franchises, I spent my first day sitting in prospects’ closets with different designers. I returned to find my client leaning against the wall waiting for me as I exited the elevator. “How can one little woman cause so much disruption in 5 hours? (Note: I merely asked designers: “How will your prospects choose you over the competition?” and otherwise remained a silent observer.) Let’s go figure this out.” We went into the training room where five members of the leadership team and I posed questions, played with ideas, and eventually came up with some solutions that would potentially diminish the disruption of bringing in a wholly different sales model.

Ultimately the franchises adopted my material and changed their routines. One of our new ideas was to publish an in-house ‘zine as a vehicle to create a franchise-wide WE Space to share new ideas and success stories as the new facilitation model was introduced. It went a long way toward global adoption. Disruption was just a hitch to be managed and used as a reason to create new processes. And their profits rose by 26% annually.

Relational management has different objectives and skill sets. With a focus on people it employs a collaborative approach; ideas get generated from representative groups; all outputs are considered from the human angle and take into account needs, feelings, egos, work-life balance, opportunity. The output represents

  • happy employees and customers;
  • more sales;
  • more efficiency;
  • more creativity;
  • more trust;
  • greater shared understanding/clear communication
  • more loyalty,
  • easier implementations
  • more ownership.

Relational management fosters care and respect for both employees and customers. Goals are met efficiently, with less time wastage, fewer resources, less fall out. When I hear doubters say relational leadership ‘takes more time’ I get curious: with all voices included in planning and decision-making, there are fewer problems, quicker resolutions, less attrition, easy buy-in, more creativity and more accurate data from which to make decisions. Seems to me it ultimately saves time. And makes more money.


Transactional businesses believe the DOing is of higher value than the BEing without fully understanding the broad implications of what happens when people become numbers.

When working with a transactional company as a consultant, I’ve been left out of important meetings with critical ramifications; had agendas and dates and team members shifted without discussion causing delays and redos; necessary suggestions get overlooked even when the fallout effects their bottom line. Jobs always take longer as everyone must shift gears due to sudden (unreasonable) changes, or to get everyone on the same page. My frustration and stress level is almost as high as the folks I work with as we all deal with the fallout from seemingly erratic decisions. Time, care and suggestions go unnoticed. And I often end up having to deal with getting paid – checks are late, for the wrong amount, await signatures of people on holiday.

The relational companies I’ve worked with take their commitment to people seriously. There are opportunities for learning and taking on greater responsibility; more flexible work hours to account for childcare or eldercare; excitement over new ideas, regardless of the job description of the people who offer them; respect for customers is shown through the entire customer lifecycle, from voice messages to quick problem resolution. As a consultant my time is respected and my ideas appreciated; I get included in decision making and problem resolution. They even pay me on time and with exuberant appreciation. And several have given me ‘Thank You’ gifts! Working with a relational company brings out the very best of me.

It’s obvious that relational management is far superior. I have some thoughts on how to bring transactional companies into the 21st century.


Let’s say the leadership team, or maybe one group within the organization, seeks to become relational. What’s a good way to go about it to avoid resistance and manage any disruption?

Changing from transactional to relational is an enormous undertaking: the identity and beliefs of the entire company or group must shift from power/force/control/action to collaboration/compassion/trust/respect; management must change from top-down control, reward and punishment (win/lose), to mutual decision making (win/win); client outreach must shift from treating them as numbers to servant leadership (from Home Depot to Lowe’s); even hiring choices go from results-oriented folks to those seeking to serve. Obviously it’s not possible to change thinking and leadership styles immediately, but it can be done in stages.

The biggest issue is how to get buy-in for the disruption that will ensue. To encourage ownership, loyalty, idea creation and problem solving, start with a core team – representing all levels of responsibility and job titles – to identify areas of disruption, brainstorm possible goals and resource requirements, and address issues the prevailing transactional process has caused. In other words, this initial group will recognize the problems to be solved, generate ideas for consideration, and begin to lay out possible routes forward for the larger group. And no, the usual leadership team cannot do it as they are the purveyors of the problem.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Build a representative team: It’s vital to assemble a core team that represents all levels of responsibility for each business sector – i.e. sales, finance, marketing, tech, etc. If it’s a large organization, start with a representational group for each sector, then eventually create a core team that represents the full company. Make sure to include front-line workers. These folks carry the direct knowledge of the customer and the folks who carry the corporate identity daily.
  2. Set the parameters: Decide on rules: how the meeting will be led, who is responsible for what, frequency of meetings, etc. Consider rotating leadership.
  3. Define problem to be solved: Including, but not limited to brainstorming new ideas and gathering data to capture people’s experiences and challenges. Make sure every voice gets heard and included. Check if additional people are needed.
  4. Manage disruption: Determine the types of disruption most likely to occur: in what areas, what management levels, and potentially how it would show up. potential differences in employee rules and customer outputs; and sales models and customer contact. Start with a very specific set of agreed-upon steps and stages and brainstorm ideas to manage the disruption and encourage buy-in.
  5. Research: Prior to the next meeting, do research on different types of relational approaches to discuss.
  6. Formulate approach: Using ideas from the research, cobble together ideas and vote to choose the favorites. Take back to your colleagues to discuss. Take this feedback to the next group meeting.
  7. Feedback and approach formulation: Consider feedback from constituents and incorporate feedback into a new approach. Begin to choose action items to formulate approach and assign tasks.

These steps will create a representational, dedicated team to take responsibility for beginning a change initiative. I suggest you follow my 13 Steps of Change process that encourages ideas and commitment from all; provides the foundation for buy-in and continuous improvement; and avoids resistance. I’d be happy to discuss this with any groups seeking to change.


Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. She can be reached at    

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