Building Effective Relationships

3.B Build Trust, Negotiate Power Dynamics and Communicate Effectively

When there is trust, partners are more open with each other and comfortable with conflict; they see it as a product of active engagement and the dynamic nature of collaboration. While some partners may have more influence, capacity, resources and/or commitment than others, the power dynamics can be managed effectively. Trust is also a by-product of good communication.

How can we build trust?
Trust is nurtured when partners act in accordance with the processes, principles and responsibilities they jointly negotiate throughout the life of the collaboration. Make sure these understandings are captured in a written agreement so everyone knows what is expected. Allocate time for partners to participate in team building and socializing. Be intentional about integrating the different cultures, styles and needs of partners. And, never get complacent about your environment; continually review the level of trust and equity and how well these are being managed.
How can we negotiate power dynamics within our collaboration?
Partners depend on each other for their mutual success. It’s critical to openly discuss and address power issues and conflict as they arise so they don’t become the “elephant in the room”. Assuming you’ve selected the right partners, acknowledge and value each of their contributions. Ask partners to declare their expectations and identify what they’re bringing to the table. Remember to put in place a transparent and fair process for constructively managing conflict.
How can we communicate effectively with our partners and other key stakeholders?
Effective communications ensures that the right information gets to the right people in a timely way. Consider the factors that distinguish your collaboration, such as its intent and characteristics of its partners and stakeholders, and the implications for how you communicate. While there are many new technology tools that allow collaborations to work much more efficiently, they need to be used appropriately.
Signs of Absence of Trust
Here are 10 examples of “water cooler conversations” that may signal trust is lacking in your collaboration:

  • “Why didn’t I get a notice that our meeting was rescheduled?”
  • “When was the last time she attended a meeting?”
  • “That partner seems to be directing all the work of the collaboration.”
  • “I feel like no-one is interested in what I have to say.”
  • “It’s clear that he has a hidden agenda.”
  • “Who invited that organization to join the collaboration?”
  • “Why is the funder sitting at our collaboration table?”
  • “Who was involved in the decision to hire the coordinator?”
  • “Did you hear that the lead organization has taken all the credit for the results of our collaboration effort?”
  • “That organization never follows through on their commitments.”
Building Bridges Across Cultures
The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) and a Muslim community association established a mutual commitment to bridge cultural barriers and improve childrens’ safety. Starting with specific case consultations, the partners identified cultural risk factors and CAS policies and procedures that were resulting in unexpected and unwanted results. As trust grew, the CAS reached out to work collaboratively on active cases. Today the two organizations have a formal protocol of understanding and are both involved from the start on all relevant cases. The model has been so successful it is now being replicated in other regions.
Negotiating Power Dynamics
When a small environmental group began to work with a large school board on greening school spaces, conflicts led them to acknowledge and negotiate some challenging power dynamics. Over time as divergent points of view were negotiated, the partners learned to “speak each other’s language” and to focus on their mutual interests. This required strong collaboration leadership, an openness to new perspectives and ideas, and faith that the relationship would withstand the conflict. When the school board informed their partner that they would discontinue the collaboration and provide the services in house instead, the leaders of the environmental group stood firm. They understood the important assets they brought to the collaboration, knew that their expertise could not be easily replaced, and felt comfortable making their position clear to the Board. In the end, the Board recognized the contributions that each partner brought, and the collaboration continued with a new understanding of power and equity.
Bridging Distance with the Help of Technology
Partners in a rural community health collaboration identified that geographic distance was a critical barrier to success. The Steering Committee invested in online conferencing for virtual meetings so that working group members could phone in from their homes or offices and electronically shape agendas, view documents, and discuss their work. They used a free file sharing system so that documents didn’t get lost in their e-mails, and they could receive e-mail prompts when a new resource was uploaded to the platform. When they needed to consult with other community members in their research efforts, they used a survey software that provided enough functionality to get the information they needed.
Virtual Networking- Making the Most of Scarce Resources
How does an incorporated network with very limited resources and a virtual office manage to collaborate, engage and provide services to a cluster of members located in regions across Ontario? One organization has been tackling this issue by using teleconferences for regional meetings, SKYPE for individual or group member consultations, and a password-protected area of the website with resources and tips that members want to share with one another. The network is aiming to have their next provincial AGM via teleconference, and intends to change their by-laws to allow this to happen. Capacity building is being managed through a cost effective alternative to a webinar whereby slideshow presentations can be viewed by members through the website and followed up with a phone consultation. Recognizing that younger network members are already using social media, they are beginning to use Facebook to keep members informed.