Tackling Power Imbalances in Partnership

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Power imbalance - stijn-swinnen

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

Power dynamics can destabilise a partnership, even with the best of intentions.  Diagnosis is the first step to rebalancing power for effective partnerships. Mastering mindsets for partnerships will help to tackle power imbalances in partnerships but more explicit efforts are necessary to anticipate and manage the impact of power in partnerships. 

Diagnosing power imbalances 

  1. Be honest about differences in financial resources and recognise all contributions to a partnership. This will enable partners to take account of all values in negotiations and decision making and mitigate for potential asymmetries in power.  
  2. Understand the difference between Project and Partnership Success. A Project can achieve desirable outcomes for participants yet fail to achieve mutual benefits to partners. Approach partnerships knowing the desired project and partnership outcomes, to ensure that one does not come at the expense of the other.  
  3. Call out unachievable goals. Setting unrealistic expectations can cause projects to falter, and can cause partners to default to entrenched power positions.  Realistic goals are needed to balance power relationships effectively. 

Balancing power for productive partnerships  

  1. Communicate effectively from the onsetBe explicit about the objectives, accountabilities, roles and responsibilities to capture power and potential from the outset.  Then actively invest in deriving the individual partner and mutual benefits from the partnership. 
  2. Emphasise the value of non-monetary resourcesJust as corporate partners might have innovation and communications expertise, as well as access to sizeable resources, NGO’s can highlight the significance of their networks, expertise, and reputation for the project’s success. 
  3. Promote transparency: bring all relevant stakeholders in the partnership together in one forum and within an agreed process. Publicise and record activities so that non-participating stakeholders can understand the responsibilities of each party.  
  4. Establish shared and transparent decision-making processes. This will prove vital in ensuring equal influence as the project progresses.  
  5. Create an environment of shared learning. By creating feedback loops through evaluations or reports, partners can discuss whether the project has addressed each party’s individual interests. This process can help determine whether partners are benefiting proportionally and, if not, how partners can improve their performance.  
  6. Build shared rewards. Learn from industry models. We know that businesses, where employees and shareholders receive a shared reward, are more likely to thrive.  
  7. Incentivise power sharing.  Examples from workplace bargaining suggest that an influential partner will relinquish control of a process when incentives exist. This could include better outcomes from the partnership or greater access to partner assets. 
  8. Provide formal procedures to facilitate equal levels of influence. Offer methods of support for partners with less financial influence to encourage their equal participation.  
  9. Formal, institutional arrangements are vital for power balances. Co-determination in corporate governance models—in which employees have the formal opportunity to participate in their firm’s decision making—leads to great balances of influence. Encourage participation by local actors. When possible, attempt to support locally controlled finance mechanisms to balance financial influences. 
  10. Develop a RACI (responsibility, accountability, consulted, informed) framework for the partnership to ensure partners are actively engaged.  The more of a personal stake people feel they have in a partnership, the more responsible they will feel for ensuring its success.iii 

Power imbalances are inherent in partnerships between organisations with different levels of monetary resources, expertise, dedicated people and influence within the sector. However, if imbalances go unchecked they can undermine trust and ultimately partnership success. Diagnosing the power imbalance and ensuring the value that each partner brings is recognised is a start. Beyond this, formal procedures can ensure decision-making processes are fully consultative and transparent so the influence of each partner is clear and shared learning and rewards can ensure partners benefit proportionally. Power can even be redistributed by incentivising power sharing and offering methods of supporting less financially influential partners. In these ways, equal participation and equal influence can be achieved. 

Follow the series to get an ‘overview of the mindsets for partnership and innovation’ and delve deep into each mindset for more insights and tools.  Sign up at https://www.ethicore.com/get-in-touch/sign-up/ to receive the series by email. 

By Jane Thurlow and Rachael Clay 

iii Talking the Walk: A Communication Manual for Partnership Practitioners pg 19