Research; Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business

Clemson study finds all talk, no empathy thwarts partnership progress


An exhaustive examination of partners with varying backgrounds attempting to work together on important social issues concluded that good intentions and talking things through provided little basis for progress, according to a Clemson University study.

Erin Powell, research, management
Erin Powell

Researchers, led by Erin Powell, assistant professor in the College of Business, studied eight cross-sector partnerships comprised of people with varied community, government and industry backgrounds but sharing common goals. Over 10 years, the behaviors of the groups’ participants were examined as they created new organizations to solve environmental, housing, development and human rights issues in post-Apartheid South Africa.

“Our study found that no amount of talking things through provided a silver bullet for dealing with the issues these groups faced,” said Powell, a faculty member in Clemson’s Department of Management. “What became clear was that only when people in these groups were willing to give up something they valued – and to take seriously the threats to their partners’ material interests that progress might entail – were the groups able to work together and make progress on their shared goals.”

Powell, the lead author on “Bringing the elephant into the room? Enacting conflict in collective prosocial organizing,” focuses her teaching and research on entrepreneurship. Creating new cross-sector partnership is an increasingly important form of entrepreneurship for dealing with what have been labeled “grand social challenges,” Powell said

She was joined in the research by Ralph Hamann, University of Cape Town, South Africa; Verena Bitzer, KIT Sustainable Economic Development, Royal Tropical Institute, Netherlands; and Ted Baker, Rutgers University.

Their extensive research on the partnerships’ interactions involved observing more than 400 hours of meetings, interviews with 60 separate participants, countless hours of skyping with fellow researchers and other stakeholders, and the analysis of reams of meeting notes and meeting minutes, Powell said.

She said researchers observed a number of roadblocks the partnerships struggled to overcome. One was failing to bring critics or opposing voices on an issue into the discussion, either deliberately, or inadvertently.

“There were varied outcomes in the eight new ‘cross-sector’ partnerships we studied. In some cases, working together on small projects became the catalyst in making a group’s partnership work, by allowing their posture toward one another to change,” she said. “In other instances, the groups dissolved. In still other cases, one side took over and essentially got what they wanted out of the deal, completely at the expense of the other participants.”

Powell said the bottom-line in managing conflicting material interests isn’t simply being well-intentioned and listening to another viewpoint.

“Meaning well and thinking good thoughts won’t bring these sorts of partnerships to an agreement or allow them to make progress. People have to be willing to understand that these can be zero sum games: someone has to give up something valuable so that shared interests can be served,” Powell said. “By working through this difficult give and take on small projects, trust and empathy builds, sometimes allowing the groups to move onto the much bigger problems.”

Powell said her team’s research is germane to entrepreneurial ventures because though one person may be the founder of a new business, they must work cooperatively with others to make their idea come to fruition.

“The partnerships we studied were new organizations. Similar to these groups, an entrepreneur typically works with a team to move a venture forward. Whether the problem they seek to address is social or business in nature, entrepreneurs form organizations to solve problems and move an initiative forward,” Powell said.

In most cases, entrepreneurs are like everyone else in a new team: they need to understand and empathize with the differing needs, strengths and foibles of early team members, Powell added.

“In the start-up phase, everyone is putting forth energy. Some of it emotional because of what is at stake. Barriers have to be overcome and some of those involve partners that may be unwilling to give and take. If all parties aren’t willing to understand and respect others’ interests even as they pursue their own, the road to the business becoming a joint success can be a rough one.”

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