How can you Partner when all around you aren’t?

How can we Partner when structures and culture don’t support it? was a question that was raised at The Leaders Surgery in July. And it’s a good one, because it can feel overwhelming to go against the prevailing paradigm, or try and cut through layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy.

Research tells us that autonomous work environments and leadership styles are better for performance and wellbeing, yet most workplaces are built on the bureaucratic principles of standardization, specialization, stratification, formalization, and routinization.


Bureaucracy prioritises efficiency over creativity, regulation over invention, and control over autonomy, because it means we can carry out complex tasks with optimal productivity.

Power is held at the top of the organisation and trickles down through layers of management, and decision rights are largely determined by position in the many tiers of the organisation chart. Innovation is stifled as the drag of bureaucracy creates inertia, stagnation, and disempowerment.

The issue is that whilst these human and commercial ‘costs’ are felt by the people in the organisation, they are not measured and so remain largely unseen and unaddressed.

I interviewed  long-time faculty member of the London Business School Gary Hamel, author of  Humanocracy who is recognised one of the world’s most influential business thinkers, about a human-centered alternative to bureaucracy.

He explained that to be able to do our best work, we need people who know us, love us, and will care for us when we’re struggling at work.  When we’re able to talk about and build deep trust-based relationships, it’s not only good for us as individuals, it’s good for the organizations we work in too.

This speaks directly to Partnering.

Partnering is founded on what “Mother of Modern Management”  Mary Parker Follet called ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’. This side-by-side power dynamic – even between people at different levels in the formal organisation structure – will struggle to exist without trust; it’s an essential ingredient.

I loved Gary’s advice during our interview to ‘be an activist, not a terrorist’. You don’t need to blow the system or your career up by trying to change the whole enterprise at a corporate level.

Start where you are. 

As an activist, conduct experiments right where you are by trying something different and collecting data to inform your next experiment.  Something as simple as changing the ratio of the questions you ask your team to the statements you make or the answers you provide, is a powerful step to shift existing power structures and culture.  And be mindful that your team may take some time to move into the space you’re creating – moving from ‘power over’ to ‘power with’ is founded on a belief and trust that they can make the move safely.

Studies across the world show that bureaucracy is growing, not shrinking. However, that doesn’t happen without human intention and action and it can be reversed through the same way.

Leadership is broken.

What worked before isn’t working anymore. We need a new way of leading that creates contexts for Partnering rather than Power.

What can you do to build trust and create a context for Partnering with your team today?

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