Breaking up with a Project Partner: 5 Recommendations

Deb Chilcoat

Deb Chilcoat

“It’s not you, it’s me!” Oh, if it were that simple. Breaking up with a project partner can be really tough: personal and professional relationships are forged, emotions are involved, and future potential partnerships may be jeopardized if not handled honorably. Yet, sometimes, you cannot continue down your current path. So, how do you break up with a project partner?

Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Communicate honestly throughout the partnership. Like most relationships, genuine conversations about everything from the mundane to the extraordinary offer glimpses of the health of the partnership. If there are challenges, discuss them, figure out how to avoid them in the future, and work together to determine the best way to move beyond the challenge. If there are successes, consider what made the effort successful, and try to replicate it frequently. Bottom line, there should be no surprises when you take the first step to dissolve the partnership. Your project partner may even be feeling similarly and may be anticipating the break-up coming and be leaving the “door open” for that conversation.
  2. Gather all data related to your project partners’ performance. If, after much thought and consideration, you decide to dissolve the partnership, present the data that support your decision in a clear and concise manner during a face-to-face meeting with your project partner. For example, your project partner committed to implementing an evidence-based intervention with fidelity; however, over time it became clear that they uncomfortable talking about teen pregnancy prevention with youth and are changing some of the program’s core components. Although you have had extensive conversations about this, their fidelity monitoring logs (FMLs) continue to show that the program is not being implemented with fidelity. Additionally, the analysis of the pretests and posttests are showing little to no change in knowledge, attitudes, or behavior. Take the FMLs and the pre/posttest analysis to the meeting to show the project partner that data indicate on the lack of follow through on the commitment.
  3. Let your memorandum of understanding (MOU) govern the partnership. Ideally, you and your project partner review the expectations outlined in the MOU frequently (at least annually!) to determine if adjustments need to be made along the way. For instance, your MOU outlines that a stipend will be dispersed after the successful completion of five implementation cycles. However, your partner asks you to send the stipend after only three cycles have been implemented and assures you that the other two cycles are “in the works.” A request of this nature may send up some red flags for various reasons. You can say, “No,” “Okay,” or “I am concerned that this advanced payment may set a dangerous precedent. Would you like to amend the MOU?” In any case, you can rely on the MOU to support your response.
  4. Approach the break-up with respect, dignity, integrity…and calmly. Breaking up with a project partner should not look like a reality television show. While you may be anxious, and the situation a bit tense and awkward (as most break-ups are!), it doesn’t need to be filled with high drama, finger-pointing, or chairs being tossed across the room. Sit with the project team, discuss the reasons why the partnership needs to end, and plan for closure. Include specific tasks that need to be accomplished, a timeline of when they are due, and who is responsible for completing the tasks. (For example, if curriculum materials were loaned to the partner, be sure to have a plan for their return.)
  5. Just say it. While these are just a few things ways to prepare for the break-up, ultimately, you need to muster the courage to say the partnership must end. Practice what you will say. Try out a few different approaches on a trusted colleague and get his/her feedback. Then, you can feel more confident during the actual conversation with your project partner. Sometimes it can be helpful to have another person come along in case you need support. She/he can listen for cues and interject if appropriate. If the project partner tries to persuade you to continue the relationship, the other person can help you be firm in your decision.Although it is never easy to end a relationship, often it can reveal opportunities that you never imagined. Maybe this project wasn’t a good fit for the two organizations, but your former project partner could connect you to a hugely successful new partner!

In the end, be sure to do your due diligence: be thoroughly prepared, offer clear examples, and communicate in a straightforward way. It will help to bring closure to the partnership and reduce the likelihood of any lingering questions or feelings.

What other tips do you have for someone having to “break up” with a program partner? What advice can you offer the “broken up with”?

Deb Chilcoat, M.Ed., is a Senior Manager of Training & Technical Assistance at Healthy Teen Network.

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