mutually beneficial relationships

Why We Need Mutually Beneficial Relationships at Work

Business has been and always will be built on the back of relationships. It’s the water that gives life to an eco system. Without mutually beneficial relationships, business becomes a solo endeavor. And, therefore, it fails to generate the value its owners and employees aim to create.

So, why then, do too many businesses treat the most valued relationship they have as one sided—the relationship with employees? Historically, the relationship with the organization was considered to be a privilege: “You get to work for us, the organization, and for that you should feel grateful; you get to contribute to our brand and make it stronger.” While this perspective worked over the past 200 years, it’s effectiveness and relevance has worn thin. The Internet and social media have made information widely available, a powerful equalizer. Employees can choose for themselves whether or not an organization will help them achieve their personal goals. What choice do you think they are making more often today? Simply look at the projections that indicate that more than 40% of the workforce will be free agents by 2020.

It’s the last point that marks the most dramatic shift in the relationship between employer and employee. In his latest research, researcher and speaker on the future of work, Bill Jensen found that “[employees] see companies as a vehicle to achieve their goals and dreams.” Unfortunately only 29% believed their current role would help them achieve their dreams. The absence of mutually beneficial relationships in the workplace is a leadership failure.

Moving Away from Management

Too many leaders have fallen into a rut, stuck with the familiar role of managing tasks and people. Boutique consulting firm, Root, found that 68% of workers think their leaders focus more on their own work instead of “inspiring others to succeed.” Employees don’t need a manager; they need a leader. A good leader will do what she can to take care of those people and resources entrusted to her. Management is concerned with monitoring and measuring things—worthy for tasks but no longer suitable for people.

The absence of mutually beneficial relationships in the workplace is a leadership failure.

A New Relationship

In the absence of mutually beneficial relationships and the staleness of management practices, the results are unacceptable for today’s business environment. Trust levels in management are low impacting the quality of results.

First, we need a relationship between leaders and employees that hones in on expectations of everyone involved in the work relationship. Employees need to understand the expectations for performance and results. Employers need to help employees realize their potential and help them flourish in life. Finally, the organization needs to provide the resources and people to help a mutually beneficial relationship thrive.

Actions for Thriving Mutually Beneficial Relationships

What then are ways to replace the absence with abundance? It’s not as daunting as it may seem. It does require that you be open to broadening your definition of what the leader-employee relationship means.

Employers need to help employees realize their potential and help them flourish in life.

Create Opportunities for Collaboration

As it turns out, our brain is wired for collaboration. Certainly going back to our earlier days, collaboration was key to survive. No one person could find food and shelter without the support of his community. That wiring is still part of our consciousness. Without collaboration we are denying our ability to connect with others.

Leaders today need to connect their employees with others in the group and outside of it. Equally as important you need to model the effectiveness of collaboration with your peers. For example, spend time learning what others are doing to understand the bigger picture surrounding you and your team. Naturally you need to communicate that bigger picture to your team.

Without collaboration we are denying our ability to connect with others.

Menlo Innovations holds daily stand-up meetings. In 15 minutes total, Menlonian team member share what they’ve accomplished, a project update, or an announcement. This keeps people connected and aware of what each other is doing. More importantly, however, is how the 15-minute meeting reinforces the need for collaboration. It takes commitment and clarity for people to come together daily and make the stand-up meeting be meaningful.

Spend Time in the “Field”

At Luck Companies, an aggregate business, new employees spend time in the rock quarry. It helps them learn the heart and soul of the business. It deepens appreciation for the business’s heritage. Your business may not have a rock quarry. But it can emulate the intention behind Luck Companies belief: know what the reality is of those who are closest to the work.

Too often in leadership we find ourselves caught up in our day-to-day demands. We lose site of the toil and joy experienced by employees. Our daily demands let us slip in our commitment to help employees thrive and feel successful in their work. Certainly they have responsibility to speak up when toil is too much or joy is absent. Yet you can shift the environment so that toil is minimized and joy is maximized. But you need to spend time alongside each of your people to know what their reality is.

Other Actions

Other actions you can take include expressions of appreciation. Recognize employees for successes or for finding a way around a barrier. Hold one-on-ones that just don’t focus on coaching. Spend time getting to know each of your employees’ aspirations.

Leadership is not a hands-off endeavor. It’s messy; it’s a reflection of the humanity involved in work. Leadership is personal. When you recognize the person in the work you begin to shift the relationship to be mutually beneficial. What is needed is a viewpoint that is something like this: We, the business and the employees, need to both thrive in order to generate the value we both seek. Kare Anderson, expert on mutuality and connected relationships, recently wrote, “Want to become a sough-after, connective leader? Then become the glue that bonds others together around their most talented sides.” This is at the herat of mutually beneficial relationships at work.



Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of Switch and Shift. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Great post Shawn. You nailed it. And it can’t happen soon enough. Love what Luck Companies and Menlo Innovations are doing. Employees want to be partners in the business, not just delegated to.

  • Jay T Butler

    Great article, and on point regarding the need for an equally beneficial relationship between employer and employee. As leaders, we have to first know what drives our team members and then find a way to help them achieve their goals. Connecting the needs of the organization with those of our team members is the task of leadership.

    • Agreed, Jay. It’s no longer acceptable for managers to use the excuse that they are busy or in back-to-back meetings. Saying “I’m busy” is like saying “I’m breathing”–it’s a reality for everyone. Let’s move past the ubiquity of busy and get on to doing and leading.

  • Wow. Another great one Shawn. Leaders need to CARE and you show them how. Employees want to feel “a part of” the business. Thanks man. Hope to reconnect soon.

    • Thanks, Al, for the encouragement. Just was thinking of you the other day wondering how things are in your world. Be well.

      • Still sharing and CARE-ing. People like you and Ted keep me believing and staying positive. Still dreaming about that “CARE conference” We will do it one day, my friend. Thanks again.

  • Debra Durbin

    Shawn: What about real estate? We are independent contractors but we do work along side each other. It feels so different than other company experiences however, it seems to me that there could be a huge improvement in collaboration in this environment as well (referrals, better trust, partnerships, trusted advisors?)

  • Stephen J. Gill

    Shawn, implicit in helping employees “realize their potential and help them flourish in life” is learning. I think employers need to be conscious of and intentional about helping employees learn, not necessarily in the formal training sense, but in the course of day-to-day activities, projects, and their work in teams.

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  • Ashley

    Shawn this is such a great article! It really affirms what I have been feeling and even more so today. The world is shifting and especially the work place and the businesses that shift with the times will fall off. Love how you honed in the mutually beneficial relationship.

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