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Garin Rouch

Distinction Consulting

Organisation Development Consultant

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Contracting: From accidental adversaries to progressive partnerships

How can we build robust stakeholder relationships? HRZone's OD columnists Garin Rouch and Dani Bacon share five ways to implement manager contracting to create progressive partnerships between different leaders and departments.
silhouette photo of six persons on top of mountain working together for success

Organisations depend on internal relationships to operate effectively. Yet, our organisations are a glorious mix of people thrust together with different motivations, goals, professional backgrounds, levels of self-awareness, communication styles, frustration thresholds, ethical compasses, work appetites and belief systems. 

In this big melting pot, managers are expected to cheerfully collaborate together even though they may have competing objectives. So how can we turn accidental adversaries into progressive partnerships?

The importance of strong foundations

Building a strong relationship, particularly between departments, units or teams requires skill and effort. 

If the different parts of the structure don’t work well together it impacts effectiveness and profitability. Yet, executives are often so focused on delivering on their priorities or solving issues they don’t dedicate sufficient time to building strong foundations for these relationships to thrive. 

Getting these relationships off to the best possible start is a vital part of creating a strong foundation for success. So, what can leaders borrow from the organisation development profession to develop robust relationships built on mutual respect, transparency and clarity?

Building a strong relationship, particularly between departments, units or teams requires skill and effort

Organisation development lessons for success

As organisation development consultants, we incorporate the practice of ‘contracting’ into our approach. It’s different from the creation of a legal contract. 

In our context, contracting is a proactive process at the beginning of a relationship or project aimed at establishing clear expectations and agreed-upon working methods from the outset.

This approach is about setting the stage for collaboration, ensuring that all parties have a shared understanding of objectives, roles, responsibilities, and processes, rather than forming a legally binding agreement. 

We have all witnessed the newly hired manager who has been given the brief to disrupt things up in their organisation. Inevitably, when they start to make changes, we see them encounter push back, concerns and even people working against them. 

A lot of unnecessary pain can be avoided if fellow managers contract with them early on in their relationship and develop a mutual agreement where they provide feedback openly to them as they make changes. 

This helps them get the information and insights they need to avoid unnecessary conflict with other teams and create greater engagement in their initiative.

Your expectations of each other will evolve, particularly as you become more effective at working together

Five key tips for effective contracting 

1. Build a shared understanding together

When we start working with a new stakeholder we arrange to meet every 30 days to share our findings and insights on areas such as processes, people and progress. 

You can use this as an opportunity to help update your stakeholder’s perspective and feedback on issues you’ve identified. 

They can also fill you in on information you are missing or correct any faulty assumptions you’ve made. Building a shared perspective together is a critical step to becoming aligned. 

2. Contracting is not a ‘one and done’ task

It’s better to approach it as an iterative process. Your expectations of each other will evolve, particularly as you become more effective at working together. 

3. Don’t just contract directly with your stakeholder

It’s important to contract with their team and anyone else you are working closely with. You can contract with groups to save time and build alignment. 

4. The process and level of formality will vary

This is natural and depends on the situation and the person you’ve working with. 

If they are reluctant to contract with you, then be bold and explore their reservations about why they don’t want to. 

You’ll uncover some really useful data and be able to work on addressing their reservations.

5. It’s important to listen to your intuition

Take heed of these feelings as it could indicate whether you will have a constructive relationship with them or not. 

If you have doubts, we would recommend sharing your doubts with your stakeholder and explain why you have them. Often your stakeholder will be having similar thoughts. 

You need to create clarity around what success looks like and what ‘good’ or ‘done’ looks like

An overview of the process we use for contracting with our stakeholders 

1. Agree expectations 

You need to create clarity around what success looks like and what ‘good’ or ‘done’ looks like. It’s also important to ensure expectations of each other are realistic. 

Eight questions to consider: 

  1. What does your stakeholder need from you and vice-versa? 
  2. What are their key priorities/ challenges and how might they affect your work together?
  3. What will constitute success for your work together? 
  4. What are the early wins? 
  5. How ready are their team for change? What can be done to prepare them? 
  6. How will you work together to ensure you don’t give conflicting messages? 
  7. How frequently should you meet to ensure the relationship works?
  8. When will you review our expectations to ensure they are up to date?

2. Exploring different styles 

Communication and interaction styles have the potential to derail your relationship so it’s important to spend time upfront exploring each other’s approach. 

You need your stakeholder to be receptive to your feedback. Many people hold back on giving feedback for fear of a negative reaction. If you can agree how you will give feedback upfront this can prevent unnecessary stress further down the track. 

For example, if you’re working together to solve an issue, sometimes your stakeholder will have a predetermined diagnosis and specified solution. 

You may uncover that your stakeholder is actually the source of the problem you are working on which can lead to a difficult conversation. It’s important to have permission on how you can give feedback on potentially undiscussable subjects. 

Eight questions to consider:

  1. How do your styles differ and what are the implications of these differences?
  2. When differences in perspective and opinion arise, how will you address these? 
  3. How will you know if you are not working together effectively?
  4. How do you both prefer to receive feedback? 
  5. What kinds of decisions do they want you to make on your own?
  6. What sort of decisions would they expect you to make on your own, but tell them about? 
  7. When do they want you to consult them before deciding? 
  8. What will you make decisions on collectively?

Important dynamics are formed early on in our stakeholder relationships and they are extremely difficult to change once they are in place. By developing a contract early on it creates a common understanding that creates commitment and safety between you and your stakeholder.

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more by Garin Rouch here.

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Garin Rouch

Organisation Development Consultant

Read more from Garin Rouch
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