WE HAVE A clear mission and a shared vision of the sustainability. We even think strategically. But when it comes to incorporating mutual respect and equality within our group, we still get stuck in the same old office politics.”

How many times I have heard statements like these over the past twenty-five years! While many people seem resigned to a certain amount of hierarchical management in the corporate world, there is a hope that when working in social and environmental organisations there will be a shift in values. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Even the most altruistic organisations can get caught by internal power struggles and lose track of maintaining congruence between their outer mission and their inner relationships. Bickering and competition for control limit the effectiveness of organisations of all sizes and types. The results of these interactions are costly, including lowered morale, reduced productivity, higher stress, and unwanted turnover.

Many organisations react to these situations by conducting team-

building and collaborative initiatives, only to have them later fall apart. Carefully constructed, lofty goals and change strategies seem stymied by forces which appear to be beyond their control. Or they institute strict policies and procedures, hoping to stem the tide of conflict, hoping that more tightly controlled interactions, policies and operations will deliver greater predictability. What they fail to recognise is that unless the core operating system is transformed, it is impossible for the organisation to sustain cohesion.

I have found many individuals and groups yearning to create a different kind of organisation that promotes a wider base of participation, fosters organisational and community partnerships and supports personal, visionary leadership that is committed to the sustainability of resources. Many want to attain those goals, yet few understand what to do in order to shift the operating system that so powerfully determines whether creativity, energy and productivity are limited or unleashed. But there is a better way.

THE PARTNERSHIP MODEL offers a practical alternative. This model is based on a fundamentally different view of power: the shared power of synergy, or power-with, rather than power over or top-down control. It involves a style of leadership that seeks to be in service to others in the organisation in order to co-create sustainable practices. This requires self-awareness, a willingness to be vulnerable, and a readiness to engage in reconfiguring the power dynamic while making the shift from a top-down control to a participatory partnership.

The first step in changing the way things work and in transforming the relationships lies in consciously monitoring the underlying assumptions we hold about others, and about what is or is not possible. I have found that every organisation has its own story about who they are, what they are about, and what works or does not work. That story reveals the composite of critical attitudes, core values and foundational beliefs – all of which drive the organisational process.

Honestly examining core assumptions and stories requires both sincere disclosure and a quality of listening. These processes call for a collective commitment to do the work required to achieve true collaboration and partnership, rather than merely applying popularised terms to thinly veiled structures which serve only to disguise competition, domination and control.

The Partnership Model is based on four key principles:

1. Work towards inclusion. This requires consciously sharing power and influence, rather than operating from a base of competition and control.

2. Place high value on practising open, mutually respectful communication. Rather than dismissing difficulties as ‘just a communication problem’, seek to upgrade communication skills and agreements all across the board.

3. Recognise individual and team efforts. While it is good to recognise the ‘stars’, it is also important to recognise and reward achievements through authentic teamwork.

4. Accept and encourage other ways of knowing, learning and contributing. Demonstrate recognition that wisdom comes from many sources by publicly acknowledging and honouring diverse perspectives and opinions.

At its foundation, partnership is about building trusting relationships, which must be developed over a period of time and cannot be rushed in quick-fix events or token initiatives.

This all sounds great, but can partnership organisations deliver? This question addresses a common misgiving around dismantling hierarchical management styles: that unmotivated workers will succumb to laziness, mistrust and chaos. The assumption is that the only way to motivate people, hold them accountable and get the work done is through strict policies, procedures, and management overseers. Within this framework, there is a need for some type of competition and motivational reward system to increase productivity and efficiency.

The Partnership Model is based on fundamentally different assumptions and values. Individuals are considered to be responsible and conscious learners. This model involves co-ordinating efforts between individuals and teams, promoting active participation and continuous learning, and providing a role model for open communication, innovative problem-solving and transformative conflict-management. Rather than micro-management of details, the partnership model allows co-ordination of work processes at the level where the work is actually done.

Furthermore, when organisations are truly operating on partnership principles, their decision-making, values and motivations are transparent. That transparency encourages examination and reflection on the ultimate impacts of the organisation’s mission, products and services.

IT ALL GETS back to relationships. Relationships at every level can be transformed by adopting the Partnership Model, and when the relationship at one level shifts, there are ripple effects throughout all of the other levels. Thus by consciously nurturing our relationships within our organisations, we are also nurturing our care of the Earth, strengthening our commitment to social justice, and fostering sustainability in many arenas: from families to farms, and from co-operatives to preservation of species.

The spark of hope for developing truly collaborative models of interacting, governing and doing business is kindled in those who recognise the need to make deep, far-reaching changes. When their efforts are combined, they realise the power expressed in an ancient Ethiopian proverb: “When spider webs unite, they can stop a lion.” Or in another African proverb: “If you wish to go faster, go alone, but if you wish to go further, go together.”

Creating Partnerships: Unleashing Collaborative Power in the Workplace (2005) by Cynthia King is published by Wisdom Way Press and is available through Baker & Taylor Books.