We are here to support, promote and develop voluntary and community action in Middlesbrough

Leaning into discomfort - the challenge of partnership working

‘Lean into the discomfort’ is a little mantra I’ve been speaking over myself a lot lately. I picked it up as a concept in personal development training and it’s something I always come back to after reflecting upon my frustrations about partnership working, frustrations I guess we all have when working outside of our own organisional boundaries. It’s one of those concepts, which basically means ‘this is going to feel really scary but it will be worth it’ -sounds great in theory but the reality will cost you! 

Representing the interests of the VCS within partnerships

In my role at MVDA I spend a lot of my time in partnership meetings representing the interests of the VCS in their work with people and communities. The reality is that most of these partnerships are made up of a wide range of statutory agencies, often with limited knowledge of the diverse range of organisations and community groups that make up the VCS, their complexity and more significantly, the context in which these VCOs are operating. My task therefore, in these meetings is to represent the sector and its complexity as best I can amidst a sea of statutory sector organisations operating with a strong power base and with very different organisational structures and ways of working.

I won’t get into the detail of the funding and commissioning landscape, or the lack of power experienced by many VCOs in relation to wider partnership working here but my contact with VCOs suggests there is general agreement that, in the context of multi-agency partnership working, the VCS feel undervalued, voiceless and misunderstood. My own experience in many of these partnership meetings bears this out. This is something I am learning to feel more confident to confront… Who am I kidding, I’m not confident at all, it’s scary as hell most of the time! I fear the response, the potential for criticism and rejection and even perhaps being perceived as a loud mouth...but still, I believe it is the right thing to do! Lean into that discomfort I tell myself.

MVDA’s social leadership framework

The staff team at MVDA has developed a social leadership framework to guide our work in supporting the VCS to inspire change for Middlesbrough. This framework sets out our vision and values as an organisation and identifies seven core practices which underpin our work to facilitate change. These include:

  • Situational Beginnings
  • Strategic Facilitation and Collaboration
  • Making Waves
  • Rocking the Boat
  • Building Experience
  • Influencing the Bigger Picture
  • Empowerment

There are some key elements of the framework which are deliberately intended to bring independent challenge to the wider system, to involve, better understand and value the contribution the VCS makes to influencing and creating positive change for the people and communities we all work with. For most people challenge is uncomfortable so it has provided a real opportunity for us to reflect upon what this looks like and how that challenge is working.  

The challenge of partnership working

Partnership working is a way of working most agencies sign up to. We all know, theoretically, that it is the right thing to do. Most of us are signed up to it and attend lots of ‘nice’ meetings paying lip service to it. However, I’m not entirely convinced there’s an awful lot of authentic partnerships, that really value the contribution of all partners, going on.

We all attend these meetings with our own agendas, we all have a vested interest in the needs of our own organisation and for the outcomes we need to achieve for those we are responsible for. I often sit in large meetings where few people contribute and where the power dynamics are such that some feel unable to contribute what they really think, especially where there are opposing values and a need to challenge.

I know this because many people have said to me personally what they would never have the courage to voice in a partnership setting. I am also very aware that not all partners are equal, some carry different levels of responsibility within the partnership, there are often competing agendas and, for some, statutory responsibilities and external demands that influence contributions to the partnership.    

Better together?

So, I’ve been wondering how we make our partnership working less scary and more supportive? Why don’t we recognise more quickly that we are all human trying our best to achieve the best we can in the roles we are in?

It has got me thinking about what makes partnerships that work successful? My view is that effective partnerships require shared and jointly owned goals and authentic relationships that value, respect and seek to understand the other. Multi agency partnerships require a commitment to submit power and personal agendas in exchange for the benefits of understanding and gleaning from others. Most importantly, they absolutely have to be safe places where each partner, whilst not equal is equally valued and has a voice that is welcomed, especially where there are differences in perspectives.

Without the vulnerability and courage to be real and to honestly express what we are thinking and until we can seek to understand from the position of another we will never develop effective or authentic partnerships and if partnerships are not authentic then why bother?

What’s your view on this? I’d love to hear from you. What do you think makes for good partnership working? What are the ingredients of good? I’m totally in the ‘lean into that discomfort’ zone but I’d rather work on those things that make it safer and easier for us to work together well. Maybe, these are the perceptions of just a few of us? Have you got examples of great partnerships that could inspire us?

Tracey Brittain


Senior Strategic Development Officer