How companies can cultivate meaningful workplace partnerships

Two professors share how leaders, managers, workers and teams can increase accountability and create a mutually beneficial environment that uplifts everyone.

Building meaningful partnerships at work

We often talk about how people are in a “partnership” with others.

This usually refers to a type of relationship where two or more people are working together and cooperating, usually towards a common goal. Or, the word “partnership” can simply mean a legal definition of a business where people share the profits and liabilities. Calling something a partnership means that people have some type of relationship. But does that in fact make the relationship important?

In any important work relationship, the partners should be striving to have a meaningful partnership. In common discourse, we might say that a person like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg led a meaningful life; that it is time for a meaningful change; or that two people in conflict need to have a meaningful conversation. In these cases, the word “meaningful” describes something notably above and beyond, fulfilling a higher purpose, and having considerable impact. This is how we see the potential of meaningful partnership at work.

As a result, a meaningful partnership is one in which both parties feel fully supported and are able to be successful. There is an elevated sense of cohesion, connection, cooperation, and collaboration so that both partners are fully accountable for the health and success of the relationship. Further, there is a routine exchange of appreciation and feedback that helps both partners to be happy and fully effective.

Arguably, the most important work partnership is the one between leaders and their team members. This is true for the executive who reports to a president, and the frontline worker who reports to a team lead. No matter where one falls on an organization chart or what the organization does, the quality of this relationship between the employee and the boss is vital to the success of the organization.

Unfortunately, this relationship between employees and their immediate supervisor is given little attention by many organizations. Every day teams are formed, managers get assigned, people change roles, and little to no effort is put on ensuring that employees and their manager start and continue to have a mutually supportive and successful working relationship. The result is that employees who feel unsupported often get frustrated with their manager.

In turn, managers who feel unsupported by their staff often get frustrated with them. It leads to a two-way street of disappointment that fuels dissatisfaction, disengagement, and even despair and departure (the dreaded 4 D’s!).

Given its importance, what can organizations do to create a state of meaningful partnership between leaders and employees? Here are three ideas:

1. Continuously improve empathy, respect and trust.

Empathy, respect and trust are the foundations of a meaningful partnership between a manager and team.

Empathy is a profound appreciation for the perspective of others and what’s important to them. Respect is when a person sees another as a valid and legitimate work partner who’s deserving of the rights that we would expect ourselves. Trust implies high confidence in other people at work, knowing that they have your back and will not speak ill of you.

To develop meaningful partnerships, we have to first work on building empathy, respect and trust.

2. Get aligned.

Once the foundations of empathy, respect and trust are in place, a manager and team can work toward alignment. This is when a manager and all members of the team are on the same page and moving in the same direction. Alignment happens when leaders and teams are working toward a common purpose and moving in the same direction. It includes shared views on goals, use of resources, values, methods and practices.

3. Share mutual obligations and expectations.

The process of engaging managers and their teams in a dialogue about mutual expectations and obligations can create improved levels of empathy, respect, trust and alignment between them.

Managers and their teams must be explicit in what they expect from one another. Similarly, they must be explicit in their obligations towards one another. The basis of this exchange is “what do you need from me/us to help you feel supported and be successful?” Addressing this question directly and ensuring both partners know how to engage in a dialogue with the other will lead to a meaningful partnership.

Taking these three steps can help to create that almost magical state of meaningful partnership, where a leader and the team are working fully together as equals. There will be mutual support, and both will be accountable for the success of the other.

Timothy M. Franz, Ph.D., is an Organizational Psychologist, Professor of Psychology, and Chair at St. John Fisher College. In addition to his academic role, he also works as an organizational consultant through his firm, Franz Consulting. 

Seth R. Silver, Ed.D., is the principal of Silver Consulting, Inc., and has worked with hundreds of diverse clients on leadership, cultural change, employee engagement and workplace success. Dr. Silver was also an associate professor of Human Resource Development at St. John Fisher College.

Their new book, Meaningful Partnership at Work: How the Workplace Covenant Ensures Mutual Accountability and Success between Leaders and Teams (Productivity Press, Aug. 27, 2021), provides a powerful model of how work partnerships can be created and sustained. Learn more at teambuildingprocess.com or silverconsultinginc.com

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