In order to succeed, managers and team members need to be genuine partners. This raises an important question: how can managers and their teams become effective partners?
As a team leader or team member, five qualities can provide you with a useful foundation for partnership. Empathy, respect, trust, alignment and partnership all relate to creating meaningful partnership between managers and teams.
Empathy is a profound appreciation for the perspective of others — understanding their challenges, their goals, how they feel, and what’s important to them in the working relationship. The emotional capacity to feel for another on your team is a key underpinning of successful collaboration. Mutual empathy between the team leader and the team is a necessary start to creating meaningful partnership at work.
Respect in a work context is when a person sees another as a valid and legitimate partner, deserving of rights we would expect ourselves, and someone with whom we need to cooperate in order to do our job. Respect includes valuing the other person, their skills and abilities, and the unique experiences and background they bring to the partnership. Once there is mutual empathy between the leader and the team, respect will naturally follow. Like empathy, respect is foundational.
Trust in the workplace implies high confidence in other people at work. It means believing that they won’t speak ill of you or harm you in any way. It includes transparency, keeping commitments, reliability, and ethical conduct. Once you can understand others’ perspectives and value them as legitimate partners, trust will form over time in the relationship.
Alignment is when a manager and all the members of a team are on the same page and moving in the same direction. It implies cohesion, coordination, connection, and vigorous team collaboration towards a common goal. It includes high agreement on goals, use of resources, processes, practices, and norms. Empathy, respect, and trust are required to help a team achieve alignment.
Last, partnership is when leaders and their teams are fully aligned and able to work effectively together. They support each other, accept mutual accountability for the success of what they do together and for the health and welfare of the relationship. It is a state of high interdependence and shared fate. It implies a mutuality where both leaders and team members feel very supported and are able to succeed.
The five components to meaningful partnership are somewhat sequential, at least at the start. Improving empathy leads to higher respect for the work that team members do, and the people themselves. Respectful relationships are ones where we can then continuously strengthen trust. When there’s trustworthiness and mutual trust, most working relationships will begin to experience alignment. And, alignment can lead to that feeling of close partnership. However, we recognize that this order is not rigid, because these factors are also mutually reinforcing. For example, as we strengthen trust, it’s likely that empathy will also increase.
Over time, an effective partnership that continues to improve may become meaningful. The word meaningful is intentional. In common discourse, you might say a person like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg lead a meaningful life; that it’s time for a meaningful change; or when there’s a conflict, we need to have a meaningful conversation. In all cases, it refers to something notably above and beyond, fulfilling a higher purpose, and having considerable impact. Meaningful partnership is a partnership that has impact and the power to transform an organization.
Unfortunately, many employees at all levels often don’t feel appreciated, supported, or fully able to achieve because one or more of the five elements are missing. Team leaders can get frustrated with team members, and vice versa. And, team members can often become frustrated with other team members. For many in today’s organizations, it’s often a three-way intersection of frustration! Further, during the pandemic, many team members feel even more alienated, isolated, and anxious. This means that there’s yet more need for the strong team connection that comes with a good partnership.
To form meaningful partnerships, here are five simple strategies:
1. Practice empathy. The most important activity you can do to increase empathy is to employ active listening with your team members. Make sure to listen to them when they talk about work as well as when they talk about personal issues. If you show a sincere interest and are willing to help, you’re on your way to developing empathy. One other powerful way to increase empathy is to ask: What are your expectations of me? How can I help you to feel supported and to succeed? Then really listen to the responses, discuss areas where you may be confused or uncertain of what is said, and consider how you can fulfil these expectations. Next share your expectations of them and discuss how these expectations are the same or different as what they shared.
2. Build respect. The most important actions for building respect are to leverage the strengths of others, value their time and workloads, and recognize their important contributions. Find opportunities for public praise and appreciation. And value who they are as unique individuals with special backgrounds, skills, and experiences.
3. Develop trust. Trust is a reciprocal process. Thus, to build trust, you have to show trust, and also to demonstrate that you can be trusted. This requires acting with transparency, being honest, and behaving ethically in your relationships.
4. Strive for alignment. This is when your team is working together and in strong agreement about goals, use of time and resources, practices and customs, and the best ways to get things done. Alignment is that secret sauce that makes teams win — they work as one with cohesion, coordination, and collaboration.
5. Establish partnership. Alignment will, over time, lead to a healthy, successful, meaningful partnership with your team. When people work as partners, they feel supported, they do their best work, and they stay. They know that their partner has their back, understands their needs, and will do everything they can to make sure the team succeeds. When that’s all happening, success becomes inevitable.
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.