Stop parenting, start partnering to fuel workplace performance

Partnering in the workplace means holding out for each other’s highest good: managers and employees connect on the needs that matter most to each other and co-create ways to get those needs met. The problem is we’ve been schooled to suppress our valid human needs – to stuff them down. Suffering follows when we do.

Here’s how even the most well-intended, intelligent manager can slip from partnering into parenting, and how they can course-correct by a shift to partnering to achieve the results they want.

How does an enlightened, well-intentioned manager turn into a work ‘parent’?

The answer resides in our brains. As David Rock's research has shown, our brains interpret shared responsibility as a form of threat and naturally avoid it. We experience:

  • Loss of control
  • Lack of certainty
  • Fear of failure
  • Conflict, sparked by competing needs

Sharing responsibility with an employee means relinquishing some ownership and control, and, for a manager, that can feel like a risk. Their brain has a simple solution: go binary. Either they take all the responsibility, letting the employee off the hook but holding ultimate control over the results, or they give all responsibility over to the employee, relinquishing control but gaining immunity from risk.

This binary approach to responsibility seems much safer to our brains, because sharing responsibility and partnering with someone means placing our reputation in the other person’s hands, which makes us feel vulnerable.

Business complexity, tight timelines and high-stakes projects only exacerbate this tendency. Managers are making more decisions and processing more information than at any time in history. They’re having to do more work with less help. Learning and growth are demanded, but risk and failure are not accepted.

In this environment, managers feel the pressure, get triggered and shift from partnering to parenting behaviours before they’re even aware of it.

They can become the over-demanding parent – under-delegating, over-reminding, double-checking, micromanaging. They can become the over-nurturing, helicoptering parent – hand-holding, letting people off the hook, under-challenging, being too empathetic and syrupy.

Partnering is the solution for optimal workplace performance. It allows the manager and employee to co-own and carry the responsibility together – laddering up more and more responsibility to the employee as they demonstrate capability, commitment and track record.

The manager holds out for the employee’s highest good by providing crystal-clear expectations, coaching, mentoring, guidance, systems, support and protection. The employee holds out for the manager’s highest good by offloading more and more responsibility from the manager’s shoulders and delivering value at every successive rung of the ladder.

In this way, they both get their needs fulfilled – they both experience brains that are stress-free and performance-primed.

Partnering and conversation: the art of skillful need-meeting

In part 3 of this series, we looked at how people resort to unskillful behaviours when they fear their needs might go unmet. Partnering enables skillful need-meeting. Why? When we sense someone is holding out for our highest good, we are less fearful about letting our needs be known. Partnering is an elegantly subversive way of hacking the code on our tendency to stuff down our needs and soldier on.

Partnering also solves one of leaders’ big complaints: “We invested in conversation training for all our employees – and they’re still not having the conversations.” Why not? We’ve relegated conversation to the episodic. Meaning? When managers have an immediate need for it, they go searching for their courageous or critical conversation tools, but for the rest of their organizational life, they don’t bring that same level of mindfulness or skill to their conversations.

Here’s some relief you can offer people. You don’t have to pump yourself up to be more ferocious or radical – to become someone you’re really not – to be skillful at conversation. The price of entry to skillful conversation is something we can all afford: being human.

Being human means your needs are valid. They matter. In fact, because they are as vital and biologically urgent as the air we breathe – no one in their right mind would deny a colleague of them.

Wants and preferences not so much. Your manager and coworkers may not be super-committed to meet them. But your driving needs? It would be inhumane to deprive you of them. This is why knowing and naming your needs changes the game: it engages the sensibilities of your partner to help get them met.

The Partnering Operating System

Juice Inc. equips people with a Partnering Operating System (O/S) that powers up all the apps managers and employees use to get work done. For example, coaching is an app. Customer service is an app. Negotiation, problem-solving, innovation, sales, mentoring – they’re all apps that are powered up by three bits of conversational software that 1. meet needs, 2. release energy, and 3. fuel performance.

  • Connect on what matters most.
  • Understand what’s possible.
  • Co-create a path to progress.

Think about the Ziad and Paula story we began in the first article in this Partnering series. With some leadership development techniques, we coached Ziad to use this O/S and he finally connected on what mattered most to Paula: she needed more challenge so she could be seen as a high performer. Likewise, Paula finally connected on what mattered most to Ziad: proving he was the kind of leader who could get someone back on track. A partnership was forging.

This unlocked their joint ability to understand what was possible in the relationship. Ziad began providing challenges along with the support, coaching and guidance that Paula had craved but been denied because of the reorg. As they partnered for progress in this way, Paula began to repeatedly hit it out of the park. This made her and Ziad both look like rock stars.

At Juice Inc, we use this O/S to power up the apps that matter most to our clients. Let’s return to the story of our duo, Paula and Ziad, as they discover just how powerful this O/S really is:

  • True Story, Part 3 Co-creating the path: Ziad shifted from asking less (“I’m willing to take some stuff off your plate”) to asking more – the right kind of more – based on a joint understanding of “What’s Possible?” He began sending challenge after challenge Paula’s way. They co-created a path to progress that gave her the coaching and support she wanted – simultaneously meeting Ziad’s need that things wouldn’t go off the rails. Early achievements met Paula’s need for significance and released an energy within her that fueled a sustainable arc of high performance.

    Not much later, Paula wrote: “It’s no small feat to make a complete 180-degree change to a career that was on a downturn like mine was, but now I know it’s possible. I am achieving things I wouldn’t have even considered possible this time last year. I feel confident, energized, and challenged every day. I arrive early to work and often stay late without even realizing it. I am taking on new challenges just as fast as my manager can throw them my way. I love coming to work and no longer struggle with illnesses that have plagued me in the past.”

    Epilogue: Paula was later nominated for a high performer’s Bravo Award. Later, she was promoted to a managerial position. The engagement scores she achieved with her employees was unprecedented: 100% employee engagement.

Her practice is simple but powerful. She sits with each employee and does an energy check (a component of Juice’s Beyond Engagement training) – asking them what matters most – what is the driving need that is most important to them at work. Then she partners with them to help them get their needs met skillfully.

Hacking the performance code

Shifting from parenting to partnering behaviours hacks the code on need suppression at work. It creates a powerful sense of invitation so managers and employees can talk about their needs for what they really are – something vital, pressing, and biologically urgent. This simple operating system – built on partnering – enables people to connect on what matters most, understand what’s possible and co-create a path to progress that releases energy and fuels superior performance.


Read the other parts in our Partnering Series:

Part 1: Reboot your performance management system with partnering

Part 2: 6 ways we are socialized to stuff down our needs at work

Part 3: How unmet needs short-circuit employee performance


Better leaders lead better teams.

See all Juice training solutions.