Create an Atmosphere of Partnership
By Sue Dyer
Did you ever work on a team where it seemed that
everyone was working against each other? It’s no surprise when such
a project or initiative fails. Sometimes you just wish that there were
a way to get everyone on the same page.
This was the case on one highway-widening project.
The team had to calculate how much asphalt it would take to fill the
holes left when they dug out the failed areas of the road. The owner
and his contractor’s superintendent went out and measured the area
(a square area at that) to be filled. But time after time they just
couldn’t agree on the measurement. And that wasn’t the only thing
they couldn’t agree on - how long the project would take, how far
the work should proceed in a day, what work had been completed, if the
work had been completed correctly, or even on what time of the day to
meet – they couldn’t agree on anything. Finally, in frustration,
the superintendent blew up and was kicked off the job.
How many times have you been involved with a
project that is going south and you just don’t know what to do? Here
are some concepts that help create a foundation that allows for
partnership and teamwork to grow. (See diagram, right, for the Foundations of Partnering.)
Take Ownership of Problems: What happens when a problem occurs? Is your first reaction, “I
thought Bob was supposed to do this” or, “I paid a lot of money to
get this right” or, “These numbers are just wrong”? If so, the
next logical step is to figure out who is to blame for your having
this problem. Most of us are very skilled at analyzing who is to
blame. Meanwhile, what is happening to the problem that you’ve
uncovered…who is trying to resolve it? No one! When blame seeking
starts, all communication between team members stops. And if it takes
the team two days, two weeks, or two months to begin to talk about the
“real” problem, that time can never be recaptured. It is lost
forever. This is a huge risk to the success of your project.
It doesn’t matter who created the problem. What
does matter is that you understand and resolve the problem quickly so
the project (or team) is not damaged. So
ownership of problems means that everyone owns the problems. You seek
solution not blame.
Commit to Full Disclosure: This means that you tell everyone everything that you know. How can
the team possibly create plans or know where the inherent problems are
if it doesn’t have the best information. Many times team members
hold their cards close to their vests, not revealing everything that
they know. They think that this somehow gives then an advantage. But
in fact, when you are working on a project (or on a team) you are
interdependent - you need each other in order to succeed. By holding
your cards close, causing the other team members to not make the best
decisions or plans, you are really hurting yourself as well as the
potential success of your project or initiative.
Honestly discussing all problems up front can help
you assure success. We know from research that problems occurring
after you are underway have a greater impact than problems identified
and worked out during the planning phase. So at the very start of your
project or initiative take time for the team members to share what
each sees as potential problems. Then you will have time to mitigate
the impacts. Full Disclosure
means you tell everyone everything that you know – the good, the bad
and the ugly.
Team members often get frustrated when they aren’t allowed to make
the decisions that they feel are critical for a successful project.
Even worse is when a decision they’ve made is overturned by someone
higher up in the organization. Pushing the power and decision making
down to the project/team level is critical for the success of the
project or initiative. When issues leave the project level they tend
to grow exponentially in both cost and time. You will generally get
better quality decisions from those closest to the issues. Empowering
your team members is your best bet for success.
In many organizations power resides away from the
project and the team members don’t feel that they can make
decisions. Before you start a project/initiative, it is important to
figure out ways to empower the team to do whatever they feel is
required in order to succeed. Many teams are doomed before they start.
Empower Others means you push
the decision making down to the project level before you start.
Partnering Requires Commitment: Partnership doesn’t just happen by itself, it
takes commitment to build and grow. There will be many things along
the way working to spilt up you and your partners. You have to keep
together despite them. There will be times when it would be easier to
just walk away instead of sitting down face-to-face to work things out
– don’t! Sometimes the best commitment you can make is to telling
each other the truth and then dealing with it constructively.
If there are legal agreements between you as
partners, don’t let them solely define your working relationship.
The judicial process is adversarial by design. This can undermine the
ability to build the partnering relationships required to succeed. You
can’t be both “partners” and “adversaries”, they are
mutually exclusive. Commitment
means doing whatever is necessary to keep your partnership alive and
Trust is the keystone of partnership. Your partnership will be as good
as your ability to create and grow trust between your team members. It
allows for open, honest communication. You have more power to create
trust than you might think. Your first interaction sets the tone for
the relationship. If you go into the relationship trusting and seeking
to cooperate and work together, then you are highly likely to get that
attitude in return. If you go into the relationship trying to protect
your interests and unwilling to be open, that is probably what you
will get in return. Game theory shows that cooperative relationships
produce larger wins than those where participants are protective and
What I’ve learned about trust is that, for a team,
“fairness” is the underpinning of creating trust. It is when
someone feels that something is “unfair” that trust begins to
erode. So when you have a problem or issue, always put “fairness”
on the table and discuss it first. What is a fair way to resolve the
issue? Most teams can figure it out. Measure the level of trust on your project and you will have a good idea
of how successful your project will be.
By using these five concepts you can build the
attitude and atmosphere that allows partnership to grow. For most
projects/initiatives, working together, not against each other, is the
only way they can hope to succeed.
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