August 24, 2020

How to Deal with Difficult Partnerships

You always want more of them. In truth, a person or an organization can’t have too many.

Sometimes you think you found one. Later, you realize your mistake.

What am I talking about?

Great partners.

Trustworthy partners make life easier. Great partners create results that launch you into orbit, exceeding your maximum high jump. Whether you work together for an hour or a lifetime, great things result.

Martine Meredith Collier, Executive Director, Arts Council of Hillsborough County, writing about our relationships, summed up good partnerships succinctly, “A good consultant is like finding a good marriage partner if it’s hard; it’s not working. If it’s working, it’s not hard.” (I can return the compliment and say the same thing about Martine.)
Partnerships start by jumping into the future together. As you work, you tap partnership magic—an ability to magnify your results exponentially so that your connection benefits you and your organizations in ways that delight and surprise.

Bad Partnerships

Bad partnerships generally reveal themselves early. A potential partner fails to return your calls, blows off your meetings, and comes along for a ride. Recently, I volunteered to help put together a Zoom event for a canceled reunion. In response, the leader assigned me the whole event. Given our past encounters, I passed.
Life is too short, and your work too important to put up with bad partnerships. End them as soon as possible.

The Hidden Menace: Mixed Partnerships

Other times, a partnership looks good at first. You create results. You learn things, but you feel crummy, irritated, and tired after encounters over time, like a low-grade infection. Mixed partnerships generate both good and bad results. They are a time-sucking and energy-draining menace.
Mixed partnerships must be fixed or ended.
Yet, we often fail to correct or close them. We often fail even to acknowledge them. Instead, we endure, even though these relationships drain us.
Why are mixed partnerships so hard to detect, fix, or end? They confuse us. Your partner meets some of the good partnership criteria, but not all. Besides, you’re often in the midst of a project.

Two Signs It’s Time Fix or End Mixed Partnerships

How can you tell if you have a mixed partnership?

1. Failure to Share the Work.

Good partners divide the work. They do what they say, which means they complete tasks.
The second sign is subtler.

2. Withholding.

When an employer takes part of your wages to pay the government, your employer is withholding. Partnership withholding is when partners keep information, opportunities, or benefits for themselves that, if shared, would benefit the partnership.
Here’s a gut-wrenching example. A donor contacts your partner about your work. Instead of sharing, they “forget” to tell you this good news. They work with the donor, and they receive a six-figure gift. Stingy with the credit is another withholding manifestation. These partners announce they did it all!
Withholding partners demonstrate that either the partner doesn’t care or doesn’t understand how good partnerships work. Sadly, their withdrawals inspire your withdrawals. Things spiral downward.

How to Deal with Difficult Partnerships

Trying to keep up bad partnerships that are almost good because of these and similar challenges wastes time and energy. You deserve better, much better.
Great partnerships are worth your effort to find and work. Protect your time, energy, and resources for them.

How to Use this Article: Save Time and Energy Today

Evaluate your partnerships, both professional and personal. A quick gut-check works. Which are good partnerships? Bad? Mixed? Which needs work? Pick one in the mixed category. What’s one thing you can do to protect your time or energy around it? When will you begin?
P.S. Many of you have been exceptional partners. I am grateful for the privilege of working with you and generating partnership magic with you. If you’d like to know more about establishing more excellent partnerships or renew or collaborate with me, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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