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I second that emotion

At a recent workshop on collaborative working in Dublin, the discussion turned to emotions. Our focus at the session was not relationships with suppliers; nor was it everyday interactions with neighbours and such like. Rather, it was the myriad projects and initiatives that staff work on with people from other organisations which are characterised by a degree of formality: for example, agendas, allocation of roles, plans and reports. And, linked to that, a degree of negotiation beyond the boundaries of their own organisations, from diary management through to power and ownership.

In exploring aspects of collaborative working which are currently problematic, the temperature of the session rose and, with it, the language used – this is where the feelings came in. The process of working in collaboration will potentially raise highly emotional responses from participants – for example, regarding organisational identity and history. These emotional factors – different values, fear of change or the unknown, a sense of loss – can act as barriers to collaboration. Since cooperation from a range of stakeholders and building cross-organisational trust is essential for achieving collaboration, it follows that acknowledging – and responding sensitively and positively to – emotions is an essential element in the management of collaboration. As an interviewee in an earlier IVAR project observed, ‘[collaboration] should be based upon trust and an ability to listen and value what each partner has to say. This approach allows a loosening of controls and fixed ways of working, leading to relationships between different sectors which are supportive and empowering.’

With no imminent end likely to cuts in public expenditure or the further reconfiguration of how public services are designed, delivered and governed, the need to work across organisational boundaries seems only set to increase. We have seen this most sharply in discussions about integrated health and social care. But, however necessary, unavoidable and, perhaps, desirable it may be, I was struck in Dublin by how collaborative working still has the potential to frustrate and exasperate. It may not be a silver bullet, but paying some attention to how people feel about the experience of working together might go a little way towards making collaboration both worthwhile and productive.

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