partnering leadership


Every workshop or planning session I’ve led since returning to in-person sessions earlier this year has discussed approaches or policies to working remotely or hybrid models balancing in-office and at-home work. These discussions expose underlying values about trust, partnering, and treating team members as adults or children.

Last week was an especially clear example of a values disconnect. I facilitated a strategic planning session for senior executives. One of the core strategic imperatives they felt vital to their success in the coming year was a “People Strategy.” This included attracting, retaining, and energizing everyone at all levels. The HR VP presented an overview of their recent engagement survey. It showed engagement was slipping, trust was faltering, and morale was waning. The HR VP outlined a process to feed back the survey results to management and frontline teams across the organization in the coming months. These sessions were designed to gather input on how to turn the culture around and increase engagement. Everyone agreed this was vital and much needed.

The next day an aside about people coming back into the office turned into a debate about what their work-from-home/office policy should be. Some leaders felt employees should be given a choice to do what worked best for them. They seemed to be Theory Y leaders (people are self-motivated and self-controlled, want to take pride in their work, be on a winning team, and are trusted adults). Other leaders very strongly felt the company should mandate 3 to 5 days per week in the office. They seemed to be Theory X leaders (employees will take advantage, need to be “snoopervised,” and managed like kids with rules, policies, and punishment). One argument was that the company needed to use all the costly office space that was sitting empty. Not exactly a people-centered strategy.

Since the pandemic forced many people to work from home, numerous studies show increases in productivity, engagement, morale, and work-life balance. A 2021 study by Owl Labs found 70% of employees say virtual meetings are less stressful, 55% work more hours, 76% were happier working from home, and was better for their mental health, and 1 in 4 would quit if they couldn’t work remotely. In, Surprising Working from Home Productivity Statistics (2022), recruitment agency, Apollo Technical, listed many links and studies on this issue. Two key findings: “on average, those who work from home … work one more day a week and are 47% more productive.”

The Theory X leaders at the retreat had trouble seeing the disconnect between endorsing HR’s plans for engagement focus groups and gathering input; with their inclination to mandate office facetime. Rather than partnering with employees to find the right hybrid solutions for individual needs, they pushed for “consistent rules” by dictating policies. Spouting engagement rhetoric and then ignoring input reminds me of the graffiti scrawled on a suggestion box years ago: “Please don’t put any more ideas in here. The handle is broken, and it won’t flush.”

This approach will accelerate “quiet quitting” and Great Resignation difficulties — the very attraction and retention problems they felt so vital to implementing their strategies. But the executives were in favor of HR developing a talent management and engagement strategy. These are the same leaders, by the way, who want to increase performance management across the company but don’t regularly coach and develop their own direct reports. Then they’ll complain that supervisors and managers aren’t getting the message. Not true. They see it loud and clear.

As Joe Folkman explains in his podcast Quiet Quitting is About Managers, Not Employees, every employee, every workday, makes a decision. Are they only willing to do the minimum work necessary to keep their job, or are they willing to put 100% of their energy and effort into their work?” Joe outlines Zenger Folkman’s review of 113,000 leaders to find the top behavior impacting engagement. Spoiler alert: It’s trust.

Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman expand further on their research in last month’s Harvard Business Review article, Quiet Quitting is about Bad Bosses, Not Bad Employees. They “found that the least effective managers have three to four times as many people who fall in the ‘quiet quitting’ category compared to the most effective leaders. These managers had 14% of their direct reports quietly quitting, and only 20% were willing to give extra effort. But those who were rated the highest at balancing results with relationships saw 62% of their direct reports willing to give extra effort, while only 3% were quietly quitting.”

Empowerment is better than command and control. It’s good as far as it goes…but it’s not as engaging and effective as “empartnerment.” Here’s how I compare them:



Do it to employees to push motivational buttons Do it with people to meet shared goals
Paternalistic pats on the head Participative, respectful partnerships
Management decides who gets rewarded and recognized for meeting their goals Customer/team input helps leaders and partners decide who and how to reward and recognize
Assumes performance problems are from lazy, unmotivated, and uncaring people Collaboratively aligns systems, structures, and processes to serve the servers and strengthen teamwork

Empowerment is often a Theory X manager “doing their engagement thing” — a patronizing adult-child relationship. Empartnerment comes from a different set of values and assumptions about people and what they want from their work.

Countless organizational studies show that autonomy, participation, “having some say,” and a modicum of control in the workplace are vital to employee engagement and boosting discretionary effort. Highly effective leaders see people as partners. Partnerships flourish with trust, mutual respect, two-way communication (talking with, not at each other), and adult-to-adult collaboration. These leaders do it with their partners, rather than doing it to or for them.

Quiet Quitting is a new name for the old management problem of engagement and discretionary effort. The Great Resignation is a new term for the old problem of turnover and losing good people. Weak (often Theory X) leaders who’ve built negative or mediocre cultures are panicking in today’s tight job market — and rightly so. They’ll say falsely comforting things about a “declining work ethic” or “nobody wants to work anymore.”

OK, Boomers. That’s wrong. The inconvenient truth is people — especially younger generations — don’t want to work for you, they want to work with you. They’re not your mother’s or father’s workers. And they have a lot more choice in today’s job market. Many will quit and stay or quit and leave.

In “Why Quiet Quitters Need More Than Money to Re-Engage,” Harvard Business School professors, Rawi E. Abdelal and Thomas J. DeLong report, “it’s time for managers to genuinely connect with their colleagues, and build more community and meaning in the workplace.”

What does Quiet Quitting, The Great Resignation, engagement, turnover, and difficulty filling positions say about your leadership and culture?