I’m the Human Resources Business Partner for a region within a global organization. We often feel as if we are our own freestanding company, but, in fact, we all have bosses at headquarters. Many of our local leaders condemn headquarters’ decisions in front of their peers and direct reports. Needless to say, this impacts the team negatively. What can I do as an HR professional to improve the environment?
Stuck in the Middle
Dear Stuck in the Middle,
You’ve described a very common problem: an “us against them” mindset that pits one group against another and puts management out of alignment. This mindset creates silos and divisions that can fracture an organization. And it’s reinforced when leaders turn “us” into helpless victims, and “them” into villains.
The key to stopping this behavior will be to demonstrate its negative impacts, create a range of positive alternatives, and to influence your peers to hold each other accountable for using these alternatives.
Clever Stories. When your peers condemn HQ’s decisions, they are telling Clever Stories. These are stories that excuse their own inaction, weakness, or disloyalty. It allows them to feel good about themselves, while avoiding a difficult responsibility, such as speaking up to their boss at HQ or explaining an unpopular decision to their people. Whenever you hear a Clever Story (a Victim, Villain, or Helpless Story), ask, “What is the difficult responsibility the person is trying to avoid?” and “What is the positive action the person could take to try to solve this problem?”
Ask, “What if it was safe?” People often tell Clever Stories because they don’t think it’s safe to take action. You can challenge these Clever Stories by asking, “What if it was safe?” For example, “I know you disagree with the new sales policy from HQ. What if it was safe to discuss your concerns with them? What would you want to see different? And why?” Then, together, develop a plan for taking positive action.
Accountability for Clever Stories. It helps to label the problem so that anyone can call it out when they hear it. Make sure your peers know the label “Clever Stories,” and can recognize Victim, Villain, and Helpless Stories. And, most importantly, make sure they understand that behind every Clever Story lies a Sellout. When they tell a Clever Story, they are selling out the values they hold as a leader. Ask each leader to commit to the following: “Whenever you hear me telling a Clever Story, where I’m the Victim, HQ is the Villain, or I’m acting as if I’m Helpless, please call me on it. That’s not the kind of leader I want to be.”
Nature abhors a vacuum. This maxim includes a truth that applies to human nature too, but with a twist. When we don’t know what a person or group is thinking, we fill the vacuum with stories about their motives. The twist is that these stories are overwhelmingly negative. We imagine the worst. So, imagine the following: HQ takes an action that doesn’t make sense or that hurts people in the region. People are quick to assume bad motive, and the Clever Stories begin. The solution is to fill the vacuum with accurate information.
Fill the vacuum. When HQ’s actions seem uninformed, misguided, or wrong, ask leaders to take the following actions as alternatives to Clever Stories.
Become curious, not condemning. Assume that the people at HQ are well intentioned and approachable. Avoid jumping to negative conclusions.
Get HQ’s perspective. Don’t delay. Go to the source to understand the facts as HQ sees them, and to see how these facts fit into their enterprise-wide perspective.
Explain impacts in your region. Explain the facts that relate to your region. These include elements that make your region unique (laws, regulations, workforce, customers, etc.), negative impacts the decision will have on your region, and alternative ways to achieve HQ’s objectives while minimizing impacts on your region.
Determine where you are in the decision-making process. The kinds of HQ-versus-Region problems you’ve described happen most often when HQ has either failed to get input from the region before making the decision or has decided against the region’s recommendations. Find out whether the decision has already been made, whether there is any room for modifying the decision, and whether the region has any flexibility in how the decision is implemented.
Develop a communication plan. Decide how you will communicate the decision within your region. The goal is to fill the vacuum with accurate information in a way that communicates action, strength, and loyalty. This may mean explaining why your region is making a sacrifice for the good of the greater enterprise.
I hope these ideas can help you with your colleagues and reach alignment. Let me know what works for you.