Strengthening employee engagement has been an important goal for many organizations. Why do highly engaged employees matter? Because these employees benefit organizations in numerous ways, such as better performance, better retention, better customer service, better teamwork, higher job satisfaction, and more creativity. In other words, they’re happier at work and achieve more than their disengaged colleagues.
A scale depicting levels of employee engagement developed by scholars in the Netherlands measures vigor (energy, motivation, passion), dedication (commitment, desire to stay, willingness to go above and beyond), and absorption (intense focus, less distractable, highly enjoy what they do and with whom they do it). According to this model, to be engaged means to show high levels of all three qualities, and these qualities in turn lead to positive performance outcomes.
So how can organizations engage their workforce, and benefit from improved vigor, dedication, and absorption? Much has been written on engagement, and candidly, the advice is sometimes confusing. For example, differences in industry, type of workforce, organization culture, structure, geography, and so on all can affect how an organization might approach engaging its employees.
However, one factor stands out as uniformly important to an employee’s experience at work and the likelihood he/she will feel engaged or disengaged. This is the quality of the employee’s relationship with an immediate supervisor. This is true from an executive who reports to a president to the frontline worker who reports to a team lead. No matter where one falls on the “org chart,” or what the organization does, it turns out that the relationship between the employee and his/her immediate boss is usually the most important factor affecting motivation, commitment, and satisfaction. In other words, this relationship affects engagement.
Surprisingly, most organizations don’t seem to care much about the relationship between employees and their managers. Every day, teams are formed, managers assigned, people’s roles change, and little to no effort is given to ensure that employees and their managers start off with and continue to have a mutually supportive and successful working relationship. The result is that many employees feel unsupported by their manager. In fact, a poor relationship with one’s immediate boss is a primary reason that people quit their job.
It also turns out that managers often feel unsupported by their staff. This creates a two-way street of frustration that leads to dissatisfaction, disengagement, and eventually despair and departure (the Dreaded 4 Ds).
Given the importance of the manager-team relationship and its strong connection to engagement, how can organizations create, maintain, and continuously improve the working relationship between employees and their manager?
The answer lies in the concept of meaningful partnership. It refers to an elevated state of cohesion, connection, coordination, and collaboration (the 4 Cs). It’s a working relationship that goes above and beyond, has impact, has high mutual care, support, and accountability, and is distinct because both the employee and the manager know that they’re interdependent and can’t truly succeed unless the other does too.
Consider this metaphor for meaningful partnership: Imagine two people in a canoe. If they wish to move forward, they must paddle in sync with similar force, agree on where they’re going, and work together not to rock or sink the canoe. They either collaborate effectively or they’ll go in circles. Meaningful partnership is like two people in a canoe, where both must support each other and both are mutually accountable.
What can organizations do to create this elevated state of partnership between managers and employees? Here are three key ideas:
- Embrace a new mindset.Leaders and team members must embrace the mindset of meaningful partnership. This is not ordinary collaboration. As shared, this is a “two in a canoe” state where both sides recognize that they’re interdependent and their focus needs to be on fully supporting the other. Both partners accept that they’re mutually accountable for the health of the working relationship, how the other feels in the partnership, and the success of what they do together.
- Develop a workplace covenant.Leaders and teams need to create workplace covenants. In brief, a workplace covenant is a practical relationship-building process that equips any two parties who have an important work relationship to establish and continuously improve their connection and collaboration. By exchanging behavioral and attitudinal obligations and expectations, and refining these into respective covenants, both parties adjust to help the other feel supported and be successful. It should be noted that there’s no religious connotation here, but instead simply the establishment of vital behavioral promises that have obligatory weight. Both partners agree to adhere to these covenants as a matter of personal and professional integrity.
- Review and use the covenants. Leaders and teams should then regularly review these workplace covenants informally and formally, share them with new team members, discuss them during one-on-ones, and use them as a basis for providing routine praise and feedback so that both the leader and team continue to feel supported and be successful. In short, the covenants become the means by which the manager and team ensure that their working relationship stays positive, and actually gets better over time. And this in turn will create a highly engaged workforce.
Written by Seth R. Silver, Ed.D. and Timothy M. Franz, Ph.D.
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