The Road to Engagement is Through Meaningful Partnership

By Seth R. Silver and Timothy M. Franz, 2021

For the past 25 or so years, strengthening employee engagement has been an important goal for many organizations.  Why do highly engaged employees matter?  Because highly engaged employees benefit the organization in numerous ways, such better performance, better retention, better customer service, better teamwork, higher job satisfaction, and more creativity.  In other words, they are happier at work and achieve more than theirdisengaged colleagues.

There many definitions of employee engagement.One that resonates with us is the scale developed by Schaufeli et al. (2002).  It 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 thismodel, to be engaged means to showhigh levels of all three qualities, and these qualities in turn lead topositive performance outcomes.

So howcan organizations engage their workforce, and benefit fromimprovedvigor, dedication and absorption?  Much has been written on engagement, and candidly, the advice is sometimes confusing. For example, differences inindustry, type of workforce, organization culture, structure, geography, etc. all can affecthowan organization might approach engaging its employees.

However, one factorstands out as uniformly important to an employee’s experience at work, and the likelihood they will feel engagedor disengaged.  Thisis the quality of their relationship with their immediate supervisor.  This istrue froman executivewho reports to a president,tothefront line 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 importantfactor affecting motivation, commitment, and satisfaction.  In other words, this relationship affects engagement.

Surprisingly, most organizations don’t seem to care much aboutthe relationship between employees and their manager.Every day, teams are formed, managers get assigned, people change roles, and little to no effort is given to make sure that employees and their manager start off with and continue to have a mutually supportive and successful working relationship.The result is that many employeesfeel unsupported by their manager.  In fact, a poor relationship with one’s immediate boss isa primary reason that people quit their job.  It also turns out that managers oftenfeel unsupported by their staff.  Thiscreatesa two-way street of frustration that leads to dissatisfaction, disengagement, and eventuallydespair 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?

We believe the answer lies in a concept we call meaningful partnership.  It refers to an elevated state of cohesion, connection, coordination and collaboration (the 4 Cs).  It is 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 they are interdependent and cannot truly succeed unless the other does too.

We have a 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 are going, and work together not to rock or sink the canoe.  They either collaborate effectively, or they will go in circles.  Meaningful partnership is like two 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 threekey ideas:

  1. 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 thatthey are interdependent andtheir focus needs to be on fully supporting the other.  Both partnersaccept they are mutually accountable for the health of the working relationship,how the other feels in the partnership, and the success of what they do together.
  2. 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, refining these into respective covenants,both parties adjustto 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.
  3. 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 will create a highly engaged workforce.

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.

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

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 or