In the bustling world of local economies, the chamber of commerce and city government are like the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials highlighting the joys of a peanut butter and chocolate combo. But sometimes, like any pairing, things can get a little nutty–and not in a tasty way. As a chamber pro, you might find yourself facing some significant goop with the city (I’m trying to stretch this metaphor as far as possible). It can be frustrating and impact you to the point you no longer want to work with them. Or, conversely, you may long to work with them, and they’re giving you the cold shoulder because they view you as the competition.
Sadly, you’re all on the same team.
Sometimes we just don’t see eye to eye. And sometimes, we don’t see ego to ego. However, these moments of friction are opportunities to grow stronger together. So how can you get to work on rebuilding that relationship?
We have a few ideas to share before you take your chocolate and go elsewhere.
Understanding the Dynamics Behind Bad Blood
Whether it happened under your watch or is something you inherited, when the relationship between the chamber and city sours, it’s essential to delve into the underlying reasons. It’s tempting to lay low and do as the City says in the hopes you won’t stir up additional trouble. But that’s just taking a pill for the symptom, not addressing the root cause. Various factors can contribute to this situation and knowing what they are can help you understand how best to deal with them:
Misunderstandings or lack of clear communication channels often lead to conflicts. It can be just like playing the telephone game in grade school when everyone sits in a circle and the first person whispers a message to the person to their right. That person then repeats the message to the person next to them and so on with everyone repeating what they heard. When the last person receives the message, it’s either wildly distorted or completely different from the original. It’s no one’s fault. It’s simply what happens when people hear things incorrectly and try their best to make sense of the message they thought they were given.
This happens in towns too.
The mayor tells someone, who tells someone, who then conveys it to the chamber. Now a “let’s wait and see” has turned into a hard “no.” Or worse. If you’re not sure what the root cause of your problems with the City is, perhaps it’s miscommunication or misinterpretation of something that’s been said or attributed to you.
Misaligned objectives or priorities between the Chamber and the City can strain the relationship. For example, the Chamber may be in favor of development, arguing that it will create jobs and boost the economy. They may also point to the need for new housing and businesses to accommodate a growing population. The City, on the other hand, may support preservation, arguing that it will protect the city’s historical character and charm. They may also be concerned about the impact of development on the environment and quality of life. While both organizations want the citizens to prosper, they have different views on how that can be achieved.
Differences in opinion on policy issues or economic strategies may also create friction. For instance, the City may want to lure more workers to town by advocating for an increase in the minimum wage. The Chamber, on the other hand, may be hearing from its members that a forced wage increase would hurt their bottom line meaning they couldn’t hire anyway.
Jealousy or Competition
It had to be said. Sometimes you can feel like you have a little brother or sister who goes everywhere you go. You started a workforce development initiative, the City started one of its own instead of collaborating on yours. Often issues like these are battles over territory, jealousy, a need to be seen as the group who solved the problem (this is especially true when someone’s job is on the line with an upcoming election), or a misunderstanding where they didn’t realize you were doing it too until you had both started marketing it. That’s why staying abreast of the City’s strategic plans and priorities is one of the most important things you can do when mapping out your own.
Shifts in leadership within either organization might alter dynamics and disrupt established partnerships. Opinions could change radically on the part of elected officials during an election year or after an election if new officials are voted in. For example, the city council in a small town in Florida tentatively approved the development of 100 acres of marshland to be transformed into a shopping center. During the approval process, some of the council members were voted out and others stepped down. They were replaced with more environmentally conscious individuals and the project was ultimately rejected. The land is now a protected wildlife preserve.
Every time a new group of leaders is elected, you’ll find the potential for a different agenda and priorities. You may even find them asking you to support their campaigns in a quid pro quo way, directly or indirectly. Some difficulties may even arise if you choose not to support their campaign. While elected leaders should separate their leadership positions from their candidacy, some do not. And a non-support of the campaign can quickly erode into a relationship breakdown. Laws vary by state but such actions/expectations may be illegal.
Steps Towards Reconciliation
No matter what the cause of the disagreement or strained relationship, it’s difficult for your community to thrive when elected officials and the Chamber are at odds. So how can you get things back on track?
1. Open Dialogue and Active Listening
Initiating open conversation serves as the foundation for resolution. Arrange a meeting with key representatives from both sides to discuss concerns, objectives, and expectations. Active listening plays a crucial role—understanding each other’s perspectives fosters empathy and lays the groundwork for finding common ground.
It is beneficial to focus on one or two issues at a time rather than conquer an entire grocery list of ideas. When you limit the topics, you’re able to dig deep into the goals of both sides, often finding a common point of agreement. When you discuss multiple grievances or issues at the same time, they can become jumbled or erode into “you always” allegations shutting down effective communication. Instead, go for smaller wins with more frequent sessions, if needed. This will lead to a more positive environment in gaining agreement and bringing the right people to the table in each instance. These mini-sessions with a singular or double focus will also require less time each time and be more likely to remain on topic.
2. Identify Shared Goals
Focus on shared objectives that benefit both the Chamber and the City. Whether it’s economic growth, community development, or fostering entrepreneurship, identifying common goals creates a platform for collaboration. Just as if you were traveling from New Jersey to California on vacation with friends, you could choose to drive, ride a train, or fly. Even if you decide to drive there are still different routes. Your ultimate decision will likely be impacted by the time you have, your budget, and your interests. You all want to get there, but you may have very different opinions about how. Understanding your end goal is the same destination, and knowing you all want to enjoy yourselves, will often help when trying to communicate without getting defensive or territorial. The same is true if you and the City are at odds over the route you take on a specific project or initiative.
Not only does identifying shared goals help with arguments, but it can also create collaborative opportunities early enough to reduce competition. It’s confusing for businesses (not to mention inefficient) when they see the same initiatives being run in disparate ways by both groups. Speaking of collaboration…
3. Revisit Collaboration Strategies
Reassess existing collaboration strategies to address the issues causing friction. Are there areas where joint initiatives could yield mutual benefits? Collaborative projects, events, or advocacy efforts can reignite the partnership.
It is important to set egos aside and focus on how these strategies will impact the entire community rather than select individuals. While chambers often say they are the Voice of Business, the tide of strong economic development and a thriving community raises all boats, not just the chamber so collaboration creates opportunities to leverage the largest resources for the greatest good (albeit sometimes it requires swallowing a little pride in ownership).
4. Mediation and Conflict Resolution
This may feel foreign and it may not be something in the Chamber budget, but in extreme situations, enlisting a mediator or third-party facilitator can help you navigate complex issues. Their neutral perspective and expertise in conflict resolution can steer discussions toward constructive outcomes. Even the United Nations has a mediator who keeps the discussions and priorities of the nations on track. While not a neutral party, you may have a board member who is skilled in mediation and may be able to help or give pointers.
5. Transparency and Accountability
Establish transparency and accountability measures to rebuild trust. Clear communication about actions taken and the progress made toward reconciliation is essential. Technology tools can help you do that. For example, a centralized SharePoint site can give everyone access to real-time information.
Case Studies: Successful Reconciliation Efforts
So how does it work in real life?
Case Study 1: Denton Chamber of Commerce & the City of Denton
When it comes to economic development, both the City and the Chamber have a vested interest in working toward economic success. However, no entity has unlimited resources. In order to ensure the best use of resources and the most efficient work toward economic development goals, the City of Denton and the Denton Chamber entered into an Economic Development Partnership. The agreement outlines the division of duties and provides for the City to fund the Office of Economic Development at the Chamber.
Case Study 2: Huntington Beach City Council & the Chamber of Commerce
Another example of chambers and cities formalizing an agreement and maximizing the benefits behind what they’re doing (or not doing) is when the Huntington Beach City Council became an official member of the Chamber and issued a memorandum of understanding. “The purpose of this (memorandum of understanding) is to address the duties and responsibilities of the Parties to serve the business community in relation to the common endeavor of a prosperous and thriving Huntington Beach,” city staff wrote in the proposed deal.
Sustaining a Harmonious Relationship
You’ve put in the work. But like any relationship, it doesn’t stop with the agreement to work together. To maintain the partnership you’ll want:
Establish regular channels for communication between the Chamber and City officials. Periodic meetings, updates, and forums facilitate ongoing dialogue, preventing misunderstandings and fostering a collaborative environment. These can be formal or something as simple as a group chat and a safe place with all the parties involved where they can exchange ideas and opinions.
Continual Evaluation and Adaptation
Periodically assess the effectiveness of collaborative efforts. Flexibility and adaptability are key; be willing to adjust strategies or approaches as needed to maintain a symbiotic relationship. Address things as they come up rather than waiting until these challenges become explosive arguments.
Building Relationships Beyond Conflict
Encourage interactions beyond conflict resolution scenarios. Engage in joint community projects or social events to nurture personal connections and strengthen professional relationships. Recognize what’s working and who’s behind it. Show appreciation for them.
While strained relationships between chambers of commerce and city administrations pose challenges, they also present growth opportunities and opportunities for strengthened collaboration. A troublesome relationship with the City is not the type of thing you can ignore. It won’t go away. It will only fester.
What you’re about to embark on requires patience, empathy, and a shared commitment to the greater good of the community. When things are hard, remember how good it will all taste once the collision is over. And go back and rewatch those Reese’s commercials to understand that the end collaboration can still be pretty sweet.