Using Tough Love in Public Management


Faculty Researcher Steven Kelman, Albert J. Weatherhead iii and Richard W. Weatherhead Professor of Public Management, Harvard Kennedy School Paper Title “Hard,” “Soft,” or “Tough Love”: What Kinds of Organizational Culture Promote Successful Performance in Cross-Organizational Collaborations?
Coauthor Sounman Hong, Harvard Kennedy School

Management scholars and practitioners tend to favor either a soft and nurturing approach or a hard and tough one. But new research by Steven Kelman, the Weatherhead Professor of Public Management, suggests that “tough love” might be a very productive compromise.

What might work best is not simply a question of personality or preference; it’s a vitally important question in the fields of public management and organizational performance, where an increasing focus on collaboration often brings together agencies with different approaches, such as for homeland security, and the British local government agencies studied by Kelman and hks doctoral student Sounman Hong could hardly be more different from each other.

The Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships (cdrp), created in England and Wales in 1998, involve government workers ranging from police and firemen to social workers, from probation officers to local public works crews. The partnership allows broad and innovative responses to public-order problems, specifically around the issue of at-risk youths, so that, for example, a crime hotspot might be targeted by better street lighting, increased surveillance, and a focus on repeat offenders who are causing trouble.

But the partnerships have also brought together institutions with very different traditions of management.

So-called “soft” organizational cultures, typified in this case by social workers, are characterized by features that include consensus decision-making, a deliberative style, and a “warm organizational climate.” The benefit of this kind of management culture has traditionally been viewed as a cooperative decision-making process that “improves both decision quality and acceptance,” Kelman writes. But there is also widespread concern that the same management style may create a permissive and indulgent atmosphere that can compromise standards.

A “hard” culture, like a police force, relies instead on pressure and coercion, a style of management that “has often had a bad name in organization studies,” Kelman writes. While “hard” managers may exact high standards of performance and act boldly, they may also become overbearing and create defensiveness in others, sometimes leading to resistance or sabotage.

Mixing the two cultures is not a new concept. Kelman cites as an example the U.S. Marines, whos toughness and demands are accepted because of positive feelings towards their source. But “tough love,” the name pop psychology has given that mix, has been ignored by organizational scholars and practitioners. Kelman looked for other interactions between “soft” and “hard” culture features.

Because the CDRPs work on public safety, they offered a uniquely accurate way to measure the success of the various management styles: A reduction in crime would indicate improved performance and institutional success, while an increase in crime would indicate poorer management.

The results showed that situations in which the two management cultures coexisted, providing “tough love” management, the reduction in crime was more than the sum of the parts.

“In finding that a ‘tough love’ culture can improve performance of a collaboration among government agencies in reducing crime, this study provides evidence for the broader proposition, of interest to those studying government organizations, that collaborations, properly managed, can improve public performance,” Kelman writes.

“These results also suggest revision to the common focus in managing public-sector collaborations almost exclusively on nurturing. The literature suggests that the delicate nature of partner commitment in a non-hierarchical setting with multiple cultures precludes pressure, and requires nurturing to coax involvement. These results stand against that view. Our findings suggest ‘love’ is indeed required to elicit participation. But ‘tough’ features seem also to be required to provide a jolt to act, not just feel good.”

Kelman says that he hopes this concept will now begin to be studied more widely by researchers. “I’m urging other scholars to look at this in other organizational contexts to try to get a stream of research,” he says.

— by Robert O'Neill

A “hard” culture, like a police force, relies instead on pressure and coercion, a style of management that “has often had a bad name in organization studies,” Kelman writes.

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