Breaking up is hard to do: essential skills for managers

By Chas Savage

Monday October 27, 2014

When a new government is elected, the prevailing world order is shaken up. Prime ministers, premiers and ministers make the decisions that put into effect the promises they have made. Change is forced upon government and non-government organisations alike. Programs that once were thought to be desirable, worthwhile and valuable are discarded in the blink of an eye.

As always, the detailed work of implementing the new — and the hard work of dismantling the old — is left to public service professionals.

This work can sometimes be very hard going for managers who have a program that is running smoothly and relationships, say, with partner organisations that are based on contracts, certainly, but also professional respect and mutual trust.

Let’s consider a specific example.

The Department of Community Things administers the program Delivering a Better Community and funds all sorts of projects for many millions of dollars. The department has signed contracts with community and non-government organisations, and with private companies. All contracts contain an escape clause that allows funding to be reduced, diverted or stopped.

Consider what happens to the managers of Delivering a Better Community when the new government decides, without warning, that this program will not see the light of another day.

All of a sudden the relationship between the program managers and their counterparts in the contracted organisation changes. And this is because the usual criteria that define a long-term relationship as successful — is it right, fair and uncompromised by conflicted interest? — suddenly do not apply.

This decision of government imposes a real emotional burden on project managers who must communicate what is effectively a betrayal and deal with a relationship in which respect and trust are gone.

To survive, some will channel the United States journalist Hunter S. Thompson and not defend anything:

“Most nights are slow in the politics business but once in a while you get a fast one, a blast of wild treachery and weirdness that not even the hard boys can handle. It is an evil trade, on most days, and nobody smart will defend it.”

In the world that Thompson describes, evil stuff happens and the wise and the world-weary understand this and survive because they have scar tissue layers thick. In this schema, politics is a series of one-off transactions, not necessarily related, and the responsibility of players is to look after themselves and do better next time.

And sometimes, this is exactly the model that a project manager must apply. The relationship is not to be managed, but broken, and the task is to explain that hurt is coming and there is no way to avoid it.

This is hard. Practical questions need to be asked and answered. How do we communicate this? Using what medium? The phone? An email? A letter? Who signs their name or makes the calls? What is the exact message and the exact words? Are timing and sequencing important considerations?

“… remember that honesty is still the best policy, and that equivocation, crafted ambiguity and sly evasions do not constitute good practice.”

The alternative arises when the specific program stops but where there is good, general reason for the relationship between department and organisation to continue. They work on other projects, for example, or have invaluable expertise or exist as a conduit into important groups in the community.

That is, the relationship is based not on a discrete transaction, but on an ongoing process of collaboration that should work to the benefit of both parties. In this model, the trick is to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. What other benefit exists and how are they to be delivered? What else can be done? How can the relationship be sustained through a difficult time?

The practical questions here are many and they are not easy to answer given the difficulty created by the cutting of Delivering a Better Community. What are the points of mutual interest and benefit? Who is best placed to sustain and maintain the relationship? What can be offered, if anything, by way of compensation? Is timing an important consideration?

For the Department of Community Things, it’s a toss-up as to which model is more difficult to implement. Both demand courage and emotional strength on the part of the program manager. Both inflict short-term and sometimes long-term hurt on individuals and organisations alike, and this must be understood, acknowledged and addressed by the department itself.

No matter the adopted approach, for those who have responsibility to be the bearer of rotten news, remember that honesty is still the best policy, and that equivocation, crafted ambiguity and sly evasions do not constitute good practice.

About the author

Now is the time to get Mandarin Premium

When public sector leadership is even more critical for Australia, and the business model for quality journalism is under severe threat, there has never been a more important time to join Mandarin Premium.

Get Premium Today