The Art of Engagement: Balancing Tasks and Relationships

Getting work done with other people is tricky. It’s tricky because it forces us to strike a subtle balance between our tasks and our relationships.

Relationships that are disconnected from tasks are not engagement, but they’re still important. Friends can have wonderful relationships based purely on being there for one another other without a care in the world for accomplishing tasks or getting work done together. These relationships are part of what makes us human; they’re essential to our happiness. But they’re not engagement since they’re not about connecting relationships in order to accomplish some form of work.

Tasks that are disconnected from relationships are not engagement; they’re transactions – and they’re important too. Sometimes we don’t want a relationship; we just need to get something done. I don’t need a relationship with the guy who tears my ticket on my way into a movie or when I’m asking directions to the park where my son’s soccer game is starting in three minutes. These transactions are not engagement because there’s no real relationship there.

You know pretty quickly when you’re working with someone who’s all task and no relationship. These no-nonsense individuals see connections with people as just a means to getting things done. With them, it’s nothing personal – just business.

People who are all relationship and no task often struggle when it comes to working with others to get things done in pursuit of some goal. For these people, it’s not so much an issue of avoiding difficult work. It’s more that they’re hesitant to strain their relationships by asking them to take on difficult tasks.

Organizations can be just like people, skewing one way or the other in emphasizing relationships or tasks. Organizations that are “all relationship” invest lots of resources in building relationships that never convert into real world impact. Organizations that are “all task” chronically under-invest in relationships in ways that undermine their ability to fully engage people in their mission.

Engagement is about bringing task and relationship together to create something bigger and more powerful. The more obvious aspect of task/relationship synergy is how deepening my relationship with someone enables me to ask them to take on more and more difficult or risky tasks. The deeper the relationship, the deeper the commitment to the task. That synergy works the other direction as well. When we accomplish difficult tasks with someone, it can deeply strengthen the relationship. Team members who work hard together in a tournament usually emerge from the experience much tighter – win, lose, or draw. The deeper the commitment to the task, the deeper the relationship.

Building and engaging relationships is like charging and discharging a battery. Building relationships takes time and energy. When we invest organizational energy into building relationships, it’s like converting kinetic energy into potential energy – just like we do when we charge a battery. Relationships hold the potential energy of an organization, and like a battery, they enable us to store that potential energy for use at a later date. We then discharge that energy, converting the potential energy of those relationships back into kinetic energy – the kind that helps us move things in the world.

People and organizations that excel at engagement are capable of moving really big things. They move mountains – and do so with relatively few resources. They’re able to do this because they understand the amazing leverage that comes from engaging people both inside and outside the organization in doing the work of the organization. And they’re able to do that because they’ve mastered the art of balancing tasks and relationships.

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