Most of the time, equal partnerships are hard to make work because they are not actually equal. Furthermore, even if they are equal for one brief shining moment, they don’t stay equal. If you want to beat the odds and make your partnership work, you either need to have a shared interest, a shared framework for making decisions, or the leverage required to influence your partners to do the right things the right way (your way.)

“Partnership: A relationship usually involving close cooperation between parties having specified and joint rights and responsibilities.” – Merriam Webster’s 3rd definition

Arguably the most critical “specified” rights are decision rights – who makes what decisions. In unequal partnerships in which it’s clear who’s making which decisions, decision-making generally works. Conversely, equal partners, trying to make all decisions jointly, are generally doomed to failure. Eventually they disagree, get frustrated, and grow apart. The answer to how to make it work is right there in the definition: be specifically and explicitly clear who’s making which decisions and how.

Many of my books have been co-authored. Things worked well when one person was the lead author and made the final decisions. Alternately, things worked well when we gave different authors specific responsibilities for specific sections so they could focus on those sections, become experts, and make decisions for “their” sections.

Conversely, it was more challenging when decisions were shared and we had to come to consensus. It’s hard to get everyone to agree – especially without an agreed framework for decision making. True for books, businesses, and almost any situation where two or more people have to cooperate with each other. Which gets us right back to shared interest, frameworks and leverage.

Shared Interest

First prize is for partners to share the same context, objectives, and values. Having those in place makes it much easier for you to cooperate and share rights and responsibilities. And having those in place provides a platform for constructive conflict. If your interests are truly shared, you can’t help but looking out for each other’s best interests at all times. You all can assume positive intent and view differences as arising from complementary strengths.

Trouble arises when situational changes effect different partners differently. These can be changes in their personal situation like marriage, children, or changes in other businesses or occupations. These can be changes in the business situation across customers, collaborators, associates, competitors, or external conditions. Any of these have the ability to change the relative importance of the partnership to the different partners.

Shared Frameworks

As noted in an earlier article, frameworks are the basic conceptual structures that people use to flesh out their ideas. They help people know where to start, and they focus and guide thinking about how to achieve purpose. If you and your partners agree on frameworks for decision-making, it makes it easier for you and everyone you are working with to make decisions. All know what information to look at, what precedents apply and how different people will approach decisions.


Leverage is about altering the balance of consequences – often by making unseen consequences visible. The essence of a balance of consequence is the comparison of positive and negative repercussions of making different choices.

Even if your partner can make a decision without you, and even if your partner follows a different decision-making framework, you can still influence that decision by applying leverage.

Remember the marshmallow test? A child is given a marshmallow or pretzel and told they can eat it if they want, but if they wait fifteen minutes, they can have two. The incremental treat is leverage.

Your leverage with your partners is going to range from positive to negative, from small to large, from indirect to direct, and from immediate to deferred. In general, make sure you are:

  • Applying positive leverage to reinforce desired choices and actions versus undesired,
  • Applying small leverage in doses over time or large leverage when needed urgently,
  • Helping others understand the impact of your indirect leverage.
  • Helping others understand the short-term versus long-term tradeoffs inherent in your deferred leverage.

Not all partnerships work. Even when they do work, they may not work forever. As you find yourself moving from shared interest to shared frameworks to leverage, be on the lookout for the moment when it’s time to stop partnering at all.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #676) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.