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The Partnering Relationship

Partnerships are driven by a complex and everchanging relationship among the partners. Where the relationship is poor, partnerships will deliver sub-optimally or fail.

Strong, trust-based relationships can overcome the inevitable challenges of partnering, help partners to go ‘the extra mile’ and deliver extraordinary results.

The key elements of the partnership relationship are:

  • trust and transparency
  • power balance and equity
  • mutual benefit
  • accountability and commitment

Trust and transparency

High-trust partnerships significantly reduce transaction costs; facilitate rapid knowledge exchange; provide mechanisms to flag upcoming challenges (such as the departure of key personnel); and enable rapid course correction when problems do arise. When dealing with partnership challenges, the higher the degree of trust and the strength of the relationship, the more commitment there will be to finding solutions and moving forwards.

Some indicators of a high trust partnership

  • There is a spirit of curiosity or enquiry, rather than suspicion
  • There is tolerance for mistakes rather than jumping to blame
  • The default mode is collective problem-solving, rather than partners ‘covering their backs’
  • There is good humour and energy in discussions

Some indicators of a low trust partnership

  • Everyone wants to be included in every decision, no matter how trivial
  • People are not taken at their word and there are constant demands for hard evidence, no matter how unrealistic
  • New ideas are treated with cynicism and suspicion
  • When things don’t go perfectly to plan, or mistakes are made, there is a blame culture

Partnership insight

In partnerships, honesty and transparency are critical because you cannot hide from anybody. With social media and technology everything you do is going to be known, heard or talked about. If you want to be trusted, you need to make sure that what you are doing connects and has integrity with what you are presenting to your partnership. Often you will present an amazing front but your partners may be picking up something completely different that is being relayed by social media about you or your organisation.

“People often talk about how trust takes a long time to build up and can then very quickly dissolve. I have a different opinion of that: I think you can build trust quite quickly by being reliable, saying what you do and doing what you say. Revealing something humble about yourself is, I think, a fast track to building trust. You are not sharing this stuff to build yourself up, you are sharing just to show your authenticity and, to be honest, authenticity is short in this world.”

–  Catherine Russ, partnership, learning and development specialist

Power and equity

Addressing power imbalances and maintaining equity within your partnership is important to ensure effective functioning. Left unaddressed, power imbalances can:

Result in poorer decision making Reduce commitment Risk unsustainable partnerships
Partnership decisions should be made based on the best information and experience available. Power imbalances may result in the advice of a less empowered partner with the best knowledge not being sufficiently considered. If a partner feels disempowered, or feel that others are making decisions about how the resources they bring to the table are being applied, their level of commitment to, and willingness to invest in, the partnership will be reduced. Partnerships are about creating value for all the partners. If power imbalances during negotiation, or during implementation, result in a partner not gaining sufficient net value, that partner will eventually withdraw. Or if one partner is unfairly and disproportionately benefitting, it risks ongoing bad feeling within a partnership.

Signs of a healthy power dynamic in a partnership

  • Full and open discussion of topics, however challenging, including in relation to budgets
  • People with the most relevant skills and experience on a particular discussion lead the way, rather than people who represent the biggest organisations
  • There is collective push-back if one partner is exerting power over the others, eg a donor make unrealistic demands on a partnership
  • Power imbalances are discussed openly before they become a problem

Signs of a problematic power dynamic in a partnership

  • Unease / a sense that one partner is dominating discussions and decision-making
  • Sense that one’s own / other partner’s interests are not being seen as important
  • Sense that some topics are ‘off-limits’ for discussion, for reasons that are not obvious

Partnership insight

“Where people feel responsible for something they have little real control over, it can feel deeply unsettling and become a source of stress. This often results in attempts at direct and controlling behaviour. Typically this is manifest in nonattendance at meetings, attempting to control the agenda and not sharing resources.” – John Atkinson

Mutual benefit

If all partners are expected to contribute to the partnership, they should also be entitled to benefit from the partnership. A healthy partnership will work towards achieving specific value for each partner, potentially over and above the common benefits to all partners. Only in this way will the partnership ensure the continuing commitment of partners and therefore be sustainable.

Key to this recognition is understanding what kind of value or benefit(s) each partner is receiving. In general, the more transparent each partner can be, the better.

Accountability and commitment

Mutual accountability

In a partnership, partners should hold one another to account. There should be a sense of shared risk and shared reward. This sense of shared risk and reward can be one of the most significant, and potentially most often overlooked, elements of partnership accountability. If a partner agrees to deliver something and fails to do so, there should be consequences. But the range of ‘consequences’ are different from a transactional contract, where there may be withholding of payment for nondelivery of work.

Collective accountability

Whether or not there is a formal accountability requirement (eg towards a donor providing funding to the partnership), all partners should feel a collective responsibility for the partnership as a whole to deliver. This means going beyond being satisfied with simply delivering on their own commitments, and to look out to support other partners wherever one of them might be struggling to deliver, or to collectively increase resources where things may not be going exactly to plan (very common for partnerships operating in complex environments).

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