May 7, 2019
A true partnership is when joint decisions are the default, communication is a priority, and everyone is working for something bigger than themselves.
Last month, I took a look at what it takes to be a good listener. Community science also depends on good partnership. But what exactly does it mean to be a good partner? How does a good a partner act and talk?
Here are some tips I’ve learned from watching the most successful Thriving Earth Exchange projects and asking collaborators what made their partnership work.
- Work for something bigger than both of you. The strongest partnerships are about accomplishing something bigger than either partner can accomplish alone. Partners don’t just trade services—they work together toward a shared purpose. That means shifting the focus from getting your fair share to paying it forward. In community science, the “something bigger” is about making a tangible difference on the ground—for example, by cleaning up neighborhood air quality
- Make decisions together. Nothing is more toxic to a partnership than a feeling of being less important, and nothing makes you feel unimportant like not excluded from decisions. Good partners don’t decide without talking together. If a partner is unavailable and a decision is essential, make a provisional decision and revisit it as soon the partner becomes available. This doesn’t mean that partners must agree on everything, but it does mean that they need to make decisions where everyone feels heard. Even better if they can land on a decision everyone can at least live with.
- Share resources (or the lack thereof). It is difficult to have an equitable partnership when one side holds all the money, resources or influence. That is one reason why Thriving Earth Exchange recruits volunteer scientists, rather than paid consultants – so they can stand on equal footing with their community partners, who are either volunteers or volunteering to do extra work. The strongest partnerships view their resources as a shared pool from which the partnership can draw. In practice, it means managing the budget together—regardless of where the money sits.
- Partner on one thing, not everything. It can be tempting—especially in a polarized time—to imagine partners must agree on everything. They don’t. Find the goals you agree on, work together on those, and don’t sweat the rest. Some of our work with flood survival groups involves community leaders who aren’t particularly interested in climate adaptation. The most effective scientists don’t waste time trying to convince people about climate change, they work to decrease near-term flood risk—the community’s top priority—in ways that don’t exacerbate long-term risk.
- Leverage difference. The most outstanding partners are able to transform their differences into strengths. Find the things you don’t agree on and the skills you don’t share and use them strategically. In our Midway, GA project to design a city hall, the mayor cared about operating costs and safety, while the scientist partners focused on resilience and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Green infrastructure ended up reducing both costs and emissions while enhancing safety. If they hadn’t had the courage to explore their different priorities, they couldn’t have found a way to meet them all.
- Build trust while doing work. Partnerships that spend too much time building trust don’t accomplish enough, and partnerships that don’t build trust can’t leverage difference or resolve inevitable disagreements. Find the right balance for your team and yourself. One team includes teambuilding activities in every meeting; one of my type-A friends carries an index card reminding her to ask how people feel; and one team ends every meeting by summarizing what they accomplished in the meeting.
- Earn trust by doing what you say. It’s simple, but crucial: Do what you say you’re going to do and do it on time. If you aren’t going to make the deadline, let your partner know why, and let them know early. Be especially careful not to over-promise since it sets you up to disappoint and erodes your credibility. For me, this means being clear about the difference between decisions I can make and decisions I can only influence.
- Clarify expectations. A lot of difficulty can be avoided if everyone is on the same page about who will do what, by when, with whom, and for what purpose. Good partners keep track of decisions and take the time to be sure everyone understands the decisions the same way. It doesn’t have to be as formal as notes or minutes—a quick recap at the end can help. One Thriving Earth Exchange team saves the last five minutes of every meeting to go around the table and give every person a chance to summarize what they will do and by when.
- A Thriving Earth Exchange community group endorsed a candidate for local office and pointed toward the work they did with their named scientific partner as part of the endorsement. They didn’t realize their scientist worked at an institution that didn’t allow endorsements, even indirectly, and the scientist had to bow out. The moral here is straightforward: ask! When in doubt, ask. When not in doubt, ask. If it’s new, ask. If things have changed, ask again. If you aren’t sure whether to ask, ask. Ask a lot, especially early on, and avoid the temptation to stop asking later on.
- Address Tension Early. Tension is inevitable, letting it become a problem is optional. The best partners address tension quickly with candor and compassion, before it grows into something bigger. One strategy that works, when confronted with a conflict: describe the situation to your teammate, describe the behavior, talk about the impact that behavior had, and explore, together, how to make it better. Focus on solutions, not blame. Focus on finding the right answer, not proving you were right.
One of our project leads sums it up perfectly: “Do something big, do it together, and be nice about it.”
What are your tips for strengthening partnerships?
AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange