Why public/partnerships can fail

How to ensure continuity before, during and after a crisis


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When community entities fail to come together during times of change or crisis, the event is often marked by surprise and shock. Most often the problems can be traced to the lack of attention paid to the integration of private/public sub-cultures, staff, processes, best practices and philosophies. As a result:

 • Effectiveness of key employees, at all levels, is compromised

 • Resentment and fear increases among staff and other stakeholders

 • Communication becomes dysfunctional

 • Internal conflict is elevated

 • Morale, and thus productivity, decreases

 • Business continuity is jeopardized

The explanations given for failed cooperation and execution are often directly related to the impact on employees and other stakeholders.

Two major reasons for conflict are role confusion and lack of clear processes. At best, critical changes and crises strain both.

The difficulty of merging cultures in times of necessity is usually underestimated. Organizations trying to work together after a crisis, one woman said, can be “like IBM integrating with Ben & Jerry’s.” She was right. Though their goals were compatible, the work environments were total opposites.

Skill and technology transfer is not a given. Employees can be very competent, but begin to lose confidence when confronted with a myriad of different protocols, equipment, and expectations.

Though the message given may be “We are equals in this endeavor,” it is a stretch to believe it when the power is skewed toward one of the entities.

Key people at all levels may leave or become inefficient when faced with the unknown. Not only is the new – albeit temporary - entity then left with major competency gaps, it may have also lost valuable institutional history, contacts and information.

Citizen/customer loyalty is tested, and those you serve may feel neglected, since so much attention is necessarily devoted to making the reactive community partnership work.

 

Gains and losses

 

When two or more organizations attempt to work together, dramatic changes occur in the work environment. To address people’s concerns and anxieties, the tendency is to focus on all the anticipated positive results. What is often ignored, however, is that positive change can be every bit as stressful as negative change, because with every gain, there is a loss.

Sometimes it’s as benign as giving up the familiar -- working with other computer systems or answering the phone differently, but often the trade-offs are much more difficult, and people begin pushing back.

It’s important to remember that there is good information in resistance, so it’s essential to determine the cause of the resistance and to then allow time for processing it. Finding out why people are concerned will produce useful information and show employees that management wants to know what they think. If their issues cannot be addressed, they’ll still appreciate the time. It is said that, “people would rather be heard than right.”

Focusing on people is essential at each of the three developmental stages:

 • Once the public/private coalition is announced and negotiations begin, anxiety levels increase. Anxiety is not usually about the present - it’s about the past and the future. Employees may remember the last time it was tried and failed. Or they look to the future and worry that they won’t be empowered in difficult times, or that their jobs will change so much that they’ll no longer feel competent.

The first 6-12 months are predictably chaotic and confusing.

 • When structures and formal processes are put into place, some of those early, “not-so-nice” fantasies come true. Stress increases, not from having too much to do, but from working hard and not accomplishing what you want to accomplish – a very common scenario during transitions. Additionally, there may temporarily be new colleagues, bosses, vocabulary, procedures, customers, and maybe even locations to adjust to and accommodate, and all the while people are trying to be productive while worried about the safety and well being of their families and homes. There is pressure due to accommodating increased and/or newly acquired workloads, learning and identifying role responsibilities, and being preoccupied about working through differences in cultural values.

 • People finally become assimilated. Assimilation is the time that the organizations have truly agreed to a joint effort, people are no longer focused on the newness of the plan, and it becomes “business as usual.” But keep in mind that “business as usual” does not reflect any of the original organizations, because it’s not possible to combine entities – even temporarily - and remain the same.

It is important to share the above developmental stages with all employees so they know their concerns and anxieties fall within the norm and they don’t view themselves as inadequate and abnormal for feeling the way they do. Normalizing the difficulties eliminates the self-judgment and lasting, negative effects.

Gerri King, Ph.D., is a social psychologist, organizational consultant, and president of Human Dynamics Associates Inc. in Concord.This article is the first of two parts.

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