Engagement is what brings tasks and relationships together. Engagement is the process of building relationships with people and putting those relationships to work to accomplish some goal.

Balancing Tasks & Relationships – The Art of Engagement

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.Balancing Task and Relationship

Engagement is what brings tasks and relationships together. Engagement is the process of building relationships with people and putting those relationships to work to accomplish some goal.

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 tap people outside of their staff (in fact, they often can’t even fully tap their staff for many of the same reasons).

The art of engagement centers on knowing when to invest in relationship building and when to tap relationships to get work done.

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 bigger the relationship, the bigger the tasks. And the synergy works the other direction as well. When we accomplish difficult tasks together with someone, it often strengthens our relationship. Team members who work hard together in a tournament usually emerge from the experience much tighter – win, lose, or draw. The bigger the task, the bigger 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 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 task and relationship.


Lots of related ideas at The Vital Edge.

Photo modified from rptnorris’ Flickr photostream/Creative Commons


  1. Great post, Gideon. Hey have you been looking at any of the latest thinking about co-creative enterprises? I think you’ll find a lot of GREAT insights about how businesses who really get engagement are changing the way they work. Here’s a good look to start with: http://hbr.org/2010/10/building-the-co-creative-enterprise/ar/1

  2. Comments from Marty Kearns on his blog.:

    Engagement Unpacked and Debated

    Gideon Rosenblatt is enjoying “retirement” digging into some important concepts that feed social change. His riffs are must read content for serious organizers (online and on land). I like his focus on teasing apart the spectrum of “engagement”. I love his work. I enjoy debating with him via blog post to sharpen my thinking and figure out what he is saying. These posts are thought provoking.

    Engagement is important to define. However, I don’t think I like the way it is defined here. I don’t like the way he set up the word engagement to be tied to productivity. I also react negatively to the idea that to the idea …

    “The art of engagement centers on knowing when to invest in relationship building and when to tap relationships to get work done.”

    In this framework, you are not engaged if you are in a relationship (connection of ideas and discussion) and you are not engaged if you are doing weekly tasks for someone. It is only engagement by connecting the relationship to tasks.Or as the Church used to say “faith without works is dead”

    “Engagement is what brings tasks and relationships together. Engagement is the process of building relationships with people and putting those relationships to work to accomplish some goal.”

    In this model, unless we use some really loose definitions of task and relationship then solidarity, alliance, alignment and accompaniment are not engagement. Learning from another (is that a task or transactional?) This definition makes “issue engagement” focus on a defined set of relationships and tasks. I don’t think that is consistent with my experience.

    Getting work done with other people is hard. Getting work done by people that you don’t pay is harder. In this framework, engagement is a proxy for making people work because they like you. Again, I disagree.

    It is hard to work with people when you don’t pay them. However, there are lots of reasons for failure outside the relationship/task balance. When you are not paying them, they need to either like the work (you don’t matter) or they like you, or they expect rewards in the future, or the do it because they hate who you are also working against. Are you “engaged” with other people when you are at a rally together but don’t know each other?

    Finally, this framework of engagement also seems makes engagement “scarce”. I am struck that engagement in the model is not regenerative. You “discharge” relationship points to get things done and when you are “broke” of relationships you have no capacity to get tasks done together and still be “engaged”.

    Engagement is about promise and entanglement. Like one of captains on Star Trek “Engage”. Engagement comes from the “engagement period”. The groups that are great at engagement are the groups that know how to create promise. These groups entangle their allies together close and far with attention and listening and excitement. Those that excel at engagement often align people into action but it is important to unpack and tease farther apart failure to effectively “work” an engaged public in a productive direction and the failure to be successful at engagement.

    If you want to build engagement create promise and entangle with your audience (listening, work, learning, accompaniment, campaigns, actions, etc). If you want the engaged group to be productive empower your network leaders to get things done, and invest in the network capacity of the engaged group to share, collaborate, adapt, and act collectively.


    And my reply:

    Gideonro said…
    Of all your contentions, it is the notion of my retirement, to which I take most issue! 😉 Let’s just say, stepping off the field of play for a bit to do some writing.

    “Solidarity, alliance, alignment and accompaniment” – they’re all important. But can you really even think about them as being all relationship and no action? Or the other way around – all action and no relationship? Yes, you can have alignment and solidarity with someone’s position without taking action. By why stretch the word “engagement” to include that?

    Your bigger critique here, Marty, is one which I think has some merit, but ultimately the task/relationship tension still holds. If I understand this critique – and it’s one you voiced in an earlier post – it’s that sometimes my relationship to a cause is not to the people involved with the cause; it’s to the cause itself. There may be an issue, like clean water or democracy, that speaks to us on a very deep level. And for people with this strong affinity to a particular cause, the other people connected to that cause is less of an issue.

    Here’s my response:

    First, I would argue that even in this case of someone with strong cause-affinity, you can’t really separate the cause from the people at its core. Maybe you can for very lightweight kinds of engagement, where what is being asked is not risky and not particularly onerous. But when we are called on to do heavy lifting for a cause, we all intuitively look to the other people who are involved with it. Can we trust them? Are they capable? If not, our willingness to engage lessens. It’s human nature to moderate our investments of time and energy based on how we perceive the likelihood of our success – and much of that depends on who’s in the boat rowing with us.

    Second, even conceding that last point for a moment, we need to expand what we mean by “relationship” to extend beyond people and include causes themselves. The same dynamic applies. When I have a strong relationship to a cause, I invest more in it. If I have strong affinity for a cause, another way of saying a strong relationship to it, is it really engagement if I don’t do anything about it? I don’t think so.

    This second points leads to another implication: namely, that much of what is actually happening in engagement is the process of transforming relationships with people into relationships with causes. We see this all the time as people “like” things that their friends like on Facebook, with some portion of those people eventually forming ties to the cause itself – ties that eventually free themselves of the original linkage of friendship. This is what I call the transformation of “social capital” into “inspiration capital” – and something I plan to write about in a future post.

    As for engagement being “scarce” in what I’m proposing, I’d argue exactly the opposite – that, if anything, a battery is rechargeable. It needs to be recharged for sure, but it also needs to be discharged. Both are critical for the battery to remain functioning over time.

    When Captain Picard uses the word “engage” he does so with the intent to move (and at faster-than-light speeds). Having warp engines means nothing, if they aren’t put to the test in actually moving the ship. And yet, you can’t move the ship without having those engines powered with dilithium crystals.

    Whether it’s dilithium crystals or lithium batteries, there is an important dynamic between task and relationship that is critical to making engagement work.

  3. I completely agree with this post.

    I’ve been finding this a lot in the implementation of our goal-based social software. there are people who want to get things done (doing tasks), and there are those who just want to be part of the party (people who are motivated by relationships). making sure that both contribute to the other, is the key to having an excellent culture.


    • Thanks for the comment, Ken. I’ll have to check out your site to see what you’re up to. Thanks also for the follow on Twitter.

  4. Gideon–Was just reading your as-always illuminating commentary on the art of engagement and thought I would pass along how we put those ideas into (our architectural) practice. By engaging people in the design process, we are building relationships as well as buildings. See


    • That’s a great example, John, of exactly what I’m talking about. You all are the pros at it – just the right balance of task and relationship. The site looks great, by the way.

  5. can a manager archived a goal without build a relationship with employee or will people engage any plan just by be pushed.

  6. it there any connection between salary an engage at work.

  7. Hi Gideon … attempting to find a way to connect with you quickly about this post))smiles

    My name is Steve at http://www.WELLthLearning.com (under major revision))smiles


    Cheers, Steve

  8. moylon_family@yahoo.com

    i research about task task that need balance.