Previously published on Forbes.com
Where I work, we talk about one another as colleagues. We are partners in making everything hum along in the business. We don’t say, “He works for me.” Rather, we say, “We work together.” It’s a subtle yet profound difference. We aren’t so interested in hierarchy and titles. We get good work done together with everyone’s time and talent fully engaged. In short, we want everyone on our team to experience being a true partner in creating success for themselves, the firm and our clients.
In the work we do with various organizations, we’ll frequently hear that, in exit interviews, employees attribute stress at work to the dismal quality of the relationships they had with colleagues and bosses. Part of the problem is that many organizational systems are set up wrong. People compete for scarce promotions and bonuses. There are winners and losers. This person has the clout, while everyone else has to fall in line. The organizational climate and culture of “dog eat dog” downgrades relationships to the point that they become transactional and utilitarian, losing any trace of human connection between people. The obsession with competing to win costs us our humanity.
We continue along in this pattern, thinking this is what organizational life is all about. But it’s not what’s going to deliver us successfully into the future. As the world becomes more complex, it is hard for any one person to be in charge. Better for every employee to feel responsible and accountable for the success of the enterprise. That means everyone needs to feel they have a stake, and a voice, in it. And this requires a new kind of leadership. We call it partnership.
You may think you don’t have time for all of this, so you keep plugging away and doing things on your own. To be sure, taking good care of each other and creating partnership in the workplace takes time. Collaboration is often slow initially. But trying to do it all yourself isn’t sustainable. Being a partner boss is more than worth your time.
The Boss as Partner
Partner bosses craft a sense of true belonging with their team members. The close connections they create communicate, “You matter. We need you.” — as opposed to “You can easily be replaced,” which is what hierarchical structures often communicate.
The “boss as partner” is an idea that’s just beginning to make its way into teams and organizations. Partly because millennials don’t love hierarchy. They don’t want to navigate the bureaucracy to get their jobs done, preferring instead to work along relationship lines, where communication and connection matter most in getting something done.
Bosses as partners serve as sounding boards and joint decision-makers. They see their jobs as empowering their team, encouraging them to deliver stellar results they can be proud of. They often roll up their sleeves and get busy right alongside their team. They also listen in a way that allows people to feel heard and valued – important factors in creating happiness at work.
As a team of Canadian and Korean economists explains in a new working paper first covered by The Washington Post, “People who think of their immediate supervisor as more of a ‘partner’ than a ‘boss’ are significantly happier with their day-to-day lives and more satisfied with their lives overall.”
Many companies are moving toward flatter structures and working hard to increase accountability in their teams. Zappos eliminated managers entirely as part of their high-profile transition to Holacracy, a self-management model.
I won’t sugarcoat it, however. Even though I am a passionate advocate of collaboration and co-leadership, I acknowledge that working with people as partners isn’t easy. If you genuinely embrace your team members as partners, you have to make time to listen to them more. You ought to give up some of your favorite ideas for the better ideas of the team. And performance conversations with a partner is harder than having one with an employee. There is more at stake – more to lose if you goof up. You work hard to build and preserve trust and respect.
Making the Shift to We
So, what gets in the way of moving to this partner model? Well, you may get frustrated when a job isn’t done right (code for ‘the way you would have done it’). You may even think that it would be easier to just do it yourself, and often do just that. But, whether you realize it or not, this isn’t a viable long-term solution. You can’t keep doing it yourself because we are facing unprecedented complexities at work and in the world. And no matter how much you know (or think you know), as Ken Blanchard reminds us, none of us is as smart as all of us. We need the power of “we” to meet these complexities; we must cultivate extraordinary work relationships in order to create this we.
What advances you toward the partner model? Learning to hold your partner’s success as equal to your own. Get your ego out of the way so you can stop thinking it’s all about you and your career, your results, your success. Find the courage to get back in the game after you’ve been burned. Have a fierce conversation to make things right again. Figure out what it means to engage in healthy competition and avoid unhealthy competition. You may even have to learn how to redesign your organization for partnership and collaboration.
Once you let go of the traditional hierarchical culture, you can partner up to achieve all sorts of positive outcomes: exponential effectiveness, bigger ideas, expanded awareness, newfound confidence, better results and joy in working together.
Cultivate a partnership relationship with your colleagues, your boss, a mentor or sponsor or your partner at home. Here are three things you can do at work to become more of a partner to your team members:
- Instead of giving feedback, share your perspective. Yours is not the only view of the world; it’s one. And remember, all perspectives are valid. Invite the perspectives of your team members.
- Be open to influence. Let your employees change your mind. Co-create with your employees, and be open to what they offer and bring to the conversation.
- Eliminate fear. Share as much information as you possibly can, trusting your team to hold onto it and use it to help them make good decisions. Welcome diverse ways of seeing the world. If you have a blind spot, get a coach to help you increase your own visibility.