Since the time of Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance man has stood at the pinnacle for human aspiration. Generations of people have striven to be like this example, expert and educated in many fields and disciplines, and not a shabby dinner conversationalist, either.
But one of the side effects of this aspiration has been a go-it-alone mentality. Rather than depending on others’ strengths and abilities, we strive to develop all of them in ourselves, potentially setting us up for failure.
“You’re expected to be the answer to all of your problems and none of us really is,” said Rodd Wagner, a principal with Gallup.
Wagner is the co-author, along with Gale Muller, of Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life, slated for publication in November by Gallup Press.
“As people take on their work and they take a look at that job description, some pieces of that job description are going to fit them perfectly in terms of their strengths,” said Muller, the vice chairman and general manager of the Gallup World Poll. “There’s going to be some pieces in that description and a set of other things that are expected where [they] fall short.”
Muller said there are typically three responses to that problem. One is to simply get better at the things they are not good at, but as many learning leaders can attest, development can only go so far. The second is to simply try harder. A third solution is to develop effective partnerships with people with complementary skills and abilities.
“One of the best strategies is for me to say who can help me do the things I don’t do well, so that I can spend most of my time on my strengths,” Muller said.
Broadly speaking, a partnership is any time two people are teamed up for a common goal. This could be two volunteer soccer coaches for the youth league, co-pilots on a trans-Atlantic flight, two auditors assigned to the same job or two salespeople on a joint sales call to a potential client.
From their research, Muller and Wagner identified eight components of successful partnerships — including complementary strengths, a common mission, fairness, trust, acceptance, forgiveness, communication and unselfishness. In contrast to friendships, which are often based on similar interests and strengths, effective partnerships thrive on difference.
“The partnership is trying to get to some specific goal that the two people are working on together,” Muller said. “They are likely not to have the same skill sets. A really good partnership is one in which each person brings something unique to the table.”
The key is to find partners who balance individual strengths. For example, some people may be good at starting projects, but not at finishing them. Others may be great with ideas, but struggle to communicate and market those ideas effectively.
“Each of us has these gaps in our own personalities,” Wagner said. “[To build effective partnerships requires that you] recognize that those gaps exist and that we have particular strengths, and think of yourself as an incomplete puzzle piece — you need help but you’re also precisely the help that someone else needs.”
Company culture and compensation practice often don’t encourage this self-awareness. It’s hard to admit gaps in skills on an annual review when that admission may hit you in the pocketbook. There’s also the difficulty in interpersonal relationships.
“One of the strategic implications is that the people who may be your most important potential partners may be very difficult for you to understand when you first begin working with them because they approach life so differently,” Wagner said.
The payoff, however, is worth it. While it is possible for us to go it alone and become that Renaissance man we aspire to be, it may not be the best course.
“Our research indicates that to be at your peak level of happiness, your peak level of engagement, to really live the fullest life, you still need those partnerships,” Wagner said. “It’s just you can get by without them in a way that you couldn’t 1,000 years ago.”
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