Norms and Communication Structures

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Partnerships won’t be successful without thoughtful attention to the relationship. One issue to consider is how the partners should behave in the relationship. Obviously, cooperation is the ideal. But what should you do if a partner does not cooperate or fulfill commitments in a timely manner? The work of actively managing a partnership can be supported by partnership norms and communication structures. Norms are informal agreements about how group members will behave and work together. For example, partners can set expectations for members’ behavior at meetings. Communication structures are practical guidelines and frameworks that help individuals and groups hold productive discussions, manage conflict, and reach decisions. For example, partners might use a specific process for having open dialogue about difficult topics. Norms and communication structures are useful tools for promoting healthy communication in partnerships.

Partnership norms can foster healthy work relationships.

Successful partnerships are managed by people who recognize the importance of cultivating healthy working relationships. In a large partnership comprised of many relationships, it’s essential to establish guidelines on how partnership members will work together. Creating and following partnership norms is an effective way to maintain healthy working relationships.

Although partnerships have “contracts”— formal agreements between organizations that establish the goals, structure, and responsibilities of a partnership relationship—these documents do not establish the “how” of the relationship. Partnership norms are informal guidelines on how partnership members will behave and interact with one another. These four steps will help you implement partnership norms.

    Identify the shared values of the group.
    In the partnership kickoff meeting, engage your partners in dialogue about establishing norms, often referred to as “ground rules.” Identify the areas in which norms will be necessary. Suggested areas include communication, knowledge management, resource management, decision-making, conflict resolution, and/or meetings.

    Take time to listen to each person’s perspective on each topic. Then, as a group, decide on what your shared values and norms will be. Partnership norms must be agreed upon by all members of the group.

    Document partnership norms and make them easily accessible.
    Based on your shared values, write statements that will serve as guidelines for behavior and how the group will work together. For example, if your partnership places a value on participant attendance at partnership meetings, a suggested norm might read:

    • We will attend all partnership meetings regularly.
    • I will notify members in advance if I must miss a meeting.
    • I will ask another member of the group to debrief me within one week of missing any meetings.

    Using “we will” or “I will” statements can help create ownership of the partnership norms. Once your norms are documented, make sure they’re easily accessible to everyone in the group. Consider posting your partnership norms on a shared website or virtual workspace.

    Communicate the norms regularly.
    By communicating your partnership norms frequently, you emphasize people’s accountability to the group’s shared values. Consider creating laminated cards or fact sheets that can be distributed to members. You might also consider attaching a copy of partnership norms with all meeting notes or posting them in the meeting rooms.

    Update the norms as needed.
    As your partnership adds or loses members, it’s important to revisit your partnership norms. But even if you maintain the same members throughout the relationship, it’s necessary to review and assess your norms based on the current stage of your partnership. Partnership norms are only effective when all members of the group agree on the shared values.

This template can help you develop partnership norms.

Click this link to download the Partnership Norms Template .

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Use communication structures to facilitate open discussion.

Open, honest communication is a cornerstone of good partnerships. It can be built by creating communication norms and using structures for facilitated discussion. To facilitate discussion is to be intentionally conscious of a framework for use in dialogue. Successful partnerships use consistent communication norms in every interaction and meeting. They engage in open dialogue within established parameters and allow for healthy conflict.

Below are some suggestions for building strong communication.

  1. Hire a consultant to train all staff and partners on facilitation techniques.
  2. Build proficiency in two or more leaders who develop understanding of at least one proven model of communication and commit to using that model. Each of the following books contains a practical communication framework:
    • Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott
    • Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, et al.
    • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, et al.
    • Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Talking about Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, Kerry Patterson, et al.
  3. Implement “leadership circles,” historically associated with African-American traditions. An example is “Women’s Leadership Circles,” a project of The Tides Center.
  4. Participate in Courage to Lead workshops.
  5. Provide executive/leadership coaching for all leaders within partner organizations to help them explore values and understand different perspectives.

The most essential element is having a skillful facilitator and at least one alternate. Facilitators must be able to uphold the decided-on norms and dialogue framework. All participants must agree to the norms and be willing to hold each other accountable. Through facilitated communication, partnership members must learn how to engage in productive conflict, which is necessary in order for the group to implement community-wide solutions.

Read this case study about one organization’s communication efforts.

Click this link to download a communication case study.

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