Five Fundamental Principles of Partnership
Posted by Hemant Puthli on October 4, 2011
In our professional, social and personal worlds we interact with various entities in the course of our day-to-day activity. Such entities include corporations and commercial enterprises with whom we transact business or work for, social associations and networks that we are members of or are affiliated to, and individuals with whom we have emotional ties, such as family and friends. In some cases our interactions are limited to minor transactions of a specific kind that are short-lived and sporadic (i.e., they do not exhibit a definite pattern of recurrence and do not show signs of an on-going life stream), whereas in other cases we engage more deeply and along multiple dimensions, and experience a sense of continuity over a longer term. Interactions of the latter kind tend to be more aligned with long-term strategic objectives than short-term tactical goals or operational targets, and collectively constitute a “relationship” between the entities concerned.
We consider our relationships with entities on “our side” (i.e., having shared interests and common goals) as alliances or partnerships, and relationships with entities on the “other side” (i.e., having inversely correlated interests or conflicting goals) as adversarial or competitive. There could also be relationships which are neither, but they are more likely to be obligatory in nature (e.g., with regulators). Alliances and partnerships are founded on a unique set of principles that distinguish them from other types of relationships or streams of interaction. While most of these may seem obvious and common-sensical, it may be useful to explicitly list them down, to serve as a checklist for building strong and sustainable partnerships, and as a guide to avoiding some of the typical pitfalls.
1. Two-way exchange, based on give and take: Partnerships exemplify the old adage — it takes two hands to clap. Asymmetric partnerships, where one partner does all (or most) of the giving and the other does all (or most) of the taking are usually short-lived. For a partnership to be sustainable, the giving and the taking must remain commensurate, or at least perceived to be so by both partners. The terms and conditions (tacit or spelled out) that form the basis for a partnership define the nature, scope and quantum of the give and take between partners, and as such may be taken to represent a kind of social contract (if not a legal one).
2. Fair exchange of value: The terms of engagement in such social or legal partnership contracts are understood to represent a fair exchange of value between the partners. In formal contracts between governments, corporations and other organizations, such terms are explicitly spelled out in a document signed-off by both partners. In informal relationships such as friendships, romantic relationships etc. the terms are usually implicit. However, disconnects can and do happen, when such implicit terms are either not fully understood or are interpreted differently by one of the partners.
3. Peer-to-peer, not master-slave: Because partnerships are based on engagement terms that represent a fair exchange of value, partnerships are intrinsically relationships of equals, and neither side can honestly claim to have an “upper hand” over the other. Quite often, one partner tends to be more dominant and drives the relationship hard. Traditionally, in the commercial world, customers tend to drive their suppliers hard by leveraging their power of choice, just as in male-dominated societies it is considered normal for husbands to dominate over their wives. Such tendencies erode the sustainability of the partnership and weaken it, generally speaking. (There are exceptions, of course — some personal relationships are based on dominant/ submissive duality, out of choice by both partners.) In the most extreme cases, relationships in which one partner oppressively and consistently dominates over the other may be termed “abusive”.
4. Commitment to continuity: Partnerships are built on commitments (by both partners) to common goals and shared interests within the framework of the terms of engagement. Unless explicitly time-bound, such commitments are presumed to continue indefinitely. When circumstances change and a partner is unable to honor the commitment, it may be time to review the terms of engagement and either negotiate a new set of mutually acceptable terms and conditions (that constitute a fair exchange of value under the new circumstances) or agree to disagree i.e., discontinue the partnership.
5. Enduring trust is built by fulfilling promises of mutually rewarding positive sum outcomes: Before engaging with each other, partners go through a careful selection process and pick the one that they believe best embodies the promise of a win-win relationship. The typical metaphor for this preliminary phase is “courtship” or “dating”. Promises made during this selection process are validated during the initial period of engagement, which is critical to the establishment of mutual trust and confidence in each other’s ability and commitment to deliver on the terms of engagement. After the “honeymoon” period, the more each partner continues to enrich the relationship with outcomes that bring prosperity and success to both partners, the stronger the partnership grows. The trust between the partners deepens as more and more promises are fulfilled, more and more often.
The principles listed above are equally valid at organizational as well as individual levels, in professional, social and personal contexts. When partnerships fail, it would invariably be on account of violation of one or more of these principles. On the other hand, the most vibrant and fulfilling partnerships are found to be highly successful on each count.