Archive for February, 2015

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In my years as a consultant I have seen it time and time again.  Companies with multiple sites all working together.  It is hard to bridge the gap across the miles and inevitably it shows up – The Red Headed Step Child Syndrome.  Perhaps you’ve seen it before?  This phenomenon happens when the people in offices separated by miles can’t quite see one another as human.

This is usually how I see it portrayed:

I meet people in one site in Arkansas and they talk to me about how “Michigan” has a mindset that is way off base.  They explain how “Michigan” really doesn’t understand how to get the work done properly so they need a lot of help.  “Arkansas” holds a bit of bitterness because “we” are always getting treated like second class citizens.  “Michigan” forgets us, doesn’t give us information timely, has a superior attitude, and doesn’t really care about “Arkansas.”

Then, I go to the Michigan office and meet people there who tell me how “Arkansas” doesn’t really get it.  They describe “Arkansas” having a bit of an attitude, an incorrect mindset and lacking understanding of how to get the work done properly.  They say that “Arkansas” needs lots of help to get better.

As an uninterested third party consultant, I have noticed some pretty consistent things in every situation. Once these harmful behaviors are pointed out, we work together on a cultural change that can bind remote sites together rather than continuing the divide.  Some of the common challenges I have seen and some ways companies have found helpful in resolving them are:

1) The two locations don’t think about one another as being “real” humans – The people in both locations have very similar mindsets, skill-sets, attitudes, and level of investment in the success of the company.  However, their perceptions of people they do not know personally leads to negative assumptions regarding who they really are.  Some small changes can make a big difference in bringing people together.

  • Stop depending on email for communication.  Instead, make it a point to have voice to voice calls and follow up with an email only if necessary confirming information that needs to be documented for clarity.
  • Instead of using an instant messaging system to have a conversation, use the instant messaging system to ask if they can talk for a few minutes.
  • Use video when having meetings or calls when possible.  The face to face interaction makes you remember that the person on the other side is a human who is usually quite likable.  Being able to see facial expressions and other body language brings helpful context to the conversation.
  • When having conference calls, make sure that the facilitation is equal across locations so one group doesn’t always feel like “the people on the phone.”  Make sure to have intentional conversation with the remote individuals so that they can contribute valuable insights into the conversation instead of checking out.
  • Make an effort to bridge the gap by taking time to recognize the efforts of fellow co-workers in different sites and praise them.
  • Hang up pictures of your partners in other locations so people know who they are.  Call them your partners instead of “Phoenix.”

 

2) The two locations use language that divides rather than unites.  

  • Referring to the two sites as “San Francisco” and “Chicago” or by calling them the name of their product or division furthers the divide by sending a message that we are different and intend to stay that way.  Stop constantly pointing out the dividing point and find some uniting point to refer to instead.
  • Referring to people as “resources” when talking about staffing needs or problems dehumanizes and does not create an environment where people feel valued and recognized.  Resources are things like wood, oil, water, and gas.  Humans should be referred to as “people” or by their preferred name.
  • Non-specific generalizations and rolling everyone into one bucket when talking about problems creates a negative atmosphere.  Saying “Chicago” or “Sales” when you are really referring to two specific people who happen to work in that department sends a message that the entire department is ganging up on us and we are the victims.  Talk about problems, not people.  When people are involved, be clear about who you are discussing specifically instead of talking in broad generalizations.  When you hear “they” did something, ask for clarification about who exactly “they” represents.  This helps clarify that the conflict is with certain individuals – not an entire work unit.
  • Saying “you” and “us” or “your products” and “our products” is damaging because it sends the message that we are in competition.  Remember there is no “yours and mine” or “you and us”.  We are all one company, all one team.  We are not competitors.  We are allies and partners trying to reach one united purpose.

 

3) Leadership encourages the division across sites  by reinforcing a victim mentality.

  • Most conflicts arise due to a communication breakdown.  People don’t generally try to create problems.  They usually just don’t know that what they are doing is causing someone else frustration.  Instead of allowing people to be frustrated and see the problem as a people problem.  Help them see that it is probably a communication problem. Arrange a time to talk and clear the air and get some agreement regarding how everyone can work together more successfully going forward.
  • Attempting to be supportive sometimes perpetuates the mentality that “we” are being treated unfairly by the other group.  Supporting frustration by agreeing that the other group is not helpful or that they don’t understand “us” or that they always treat “us” like the “Red Headed Step Children” enables poor relationships to fester. Instead of supporting by sympathizing, support by correcting people when they use dividing language and remind them of the mindset of unity that you are trying to develop.  Work with them to break these beliefs by sharing these concerns openly with their partners in remote locations to create a better working environment.
  • Check your attitude.  Be friendly and always assume positive intent.  Recognize when you are making negative assumptions about people’s motivations, tone of voice, and attitude when reading emails or instant messages.  If you are assuming negative intent it is time to pick up the phone.  Teach others to do the same.  When you hear them “reading” an email with a snarky or negative tone – point out the assumptions and ask them to pick up the phone to facilitate better communication with the other person.
  • Don’t allow anonymous feedback.  Anonymous feedback is not actionable because individuals can never get to the root of what is causing the problem to figure out the best way to move forward.  This only creates an environment of mistrust and builds walls.  The person receiving the feedback is left wondering who they offended and why that person couldn’t speak truthfully to them.  Instead of getting in the middle and delivering an anonymous message, coach team members on ways they can approach the subject themselves or offer to facilitate a conversation.

The key to bridging the gap between locations is to remember that the people we don’t work with face to face are not the enemy.  The enemy is a dividing attitude.  Once people can recognize their co-workers as real people they usually begin to see them differently.  Focus on bringing people together rather than allowing them to remain divided.  It’s bad enough when people are separated from our co-workers and supervisors by miles…the last thing they need is to keep making it worse when change is possible.

What other ways has your company bridged the divide between locations?  I would love to hear about your experiences.

 

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