“Partnership” is an alternative mental model that acts as both a high-level ideology for an organisation (i.e. how it sees its relationship with the world it inhabits) and a very particular relationship dynamic.
One of the best interpretations of what a great partnership entails is laid out by Peter Block in his management classic “Stewardship”. Here’s a summary:
Exchange of Purpose
The status quo model has the top of the hierarchy define purpose and vision. It then asks that each layer of the organisation “buy into”, “align with”, “get on message” and “be engaged”.
The partnership model makes every person at every level responsible for defining purpose and vision. It gets defined through relationship and dialogue - the dialogue itself being part of the outcome - not just internally, but with all those stakeholders we want to create something alongside: customers, suppliers etc.
The status quo question “what will you do to support this vision?” in a true partnership becomes “what can we create together?”
Right To Say No
The status quo model tells us what to do. We cannot refuse. Well, we can, but we justifiably fear the consequences because disagreement is often poorly received.
The partnership model gives every person the right to say “no”, recognising that the ability to disagree gives us our humanity and our dignity: the less we can limit our consent, the less we can limit those in power over us. It’s about having a voice that’s heard, not just withdrawing ourselves.
The status quo model externalises accountability: It documents, details, measures and ties it to remuneration. It creates a culture that allows, if not encourages, people to look to someone else in whom they can allocate blame (for a problem) or hope (to solve it).
The partnership model asks us all to be accountable to and for the community we choose to be part of. It encourages a culture where people are emotionally and intellectually responsible for the world they create today and tomorrow: partners look to themselves to solve the problem, not someone else to do it for them or someone else to blame.
The status quo encourages us to avoid the truth. Fear is commonplace: the cost of exposing what’s really going on feels too high. The partnership model sees not sharing the truth as an act of betrayal. Truth-telling is real and honest, but it’s shared from a place of honour and empathy, not anger and judgement.
When moving from authoritarianism to partnership there’s a tendency for the more cynical members of the community to sit back, fold their arms and just watch. This creates a relationship vacuum and an abdication of any personal responsibility to invest in a communal direction.
The partnership model requires full contact: a commitment to an equally shared, mutual exchange. The challenge lies in maintaining this contact without someone pursuing control. The manager will still have the ultimate authority - the partnership is more 51/49 than 50/50 - but they will need to learn to relate differently: through questions, not direction, simplicity not confusion and to cope with hearing “I disagree”.