In whom do you trust?

By Rob van Tulder, Academic director, Partnerships Resource Centre

You hear it regularly: “before we partner we have to trust each other”. This is an understandable misconception. But it is also quite dangerous for effective partnering. Why? Well, most partnerships try to address problems that individual parties were not able to solve unilaterally.

In order to be really effective, therefore, partners are required from different societal backgrounds. Firms, civil society organisations and governments have to ally with each other. Why would they trust each other? These organisations have different origins, different logics, and – most importantly – often different short-term interest. There is no reason for unconditional trust. Even more: why would they trust themselves – faced as they are with the resilience of a problem that they could not solve on their own?

Research on effective partnering formation has shown that parties do not ally because they trust each other, but because they share a problem, or hope to create joint solutions. If trust were a necessary precondition, few partnerships would materialise.

Furthermore, trust is not even a sufficient condition for an effective partnership. Research on partnering, again, has shown that mutual respect is far more important. Understanding each other is equally important.  Naïve initial ‘trust’ can lead to superficial partnering and might subsequently result in performance lapses, which in practice are created by a poorly-constructed partnership.

It is no accident that many partnerships requires partners to think of ‘exit’ conditions and scenarios before they get together. What appears to be a cold contract based on low trust, is actually a good way of creating mutual understanding about the preconditions for a happy partnership.

Trust-building on the other hand, proves vital for the success of partnering. It lowers transaction costs and creates flexibility in the partnership. Partnerships that are not able or willing to increase the level of mutual trust throughout the process will likely fail. One cannot overestimate the importance of trust-building. But it is good to remember that trust-building happens most effectively when partners keep their eyes on the ball (the 10th suggested ‘rule of engagement’ of effective partnering). Nothing increases trust in a team more than to work diligently on a common goal.

Maybe the old partnering cliché should be turned around, as follows: “We do not partner because we trust each other; we trust each other because we partner!”

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