Is It Really ‘Us vs. Them’?
The cliché rift between the troops and executives can cause problems if not regularly and successfully bridged. Doing that requires effective communication.
I recently spoke with an IT team leader who provides services to a non-IT client organization. The executive leading the client department can reportedly be very demanding, challenging, and frustrating. The situation we talked about was a last-minute request for services that turned into an abusive tirade when the client was told it couldn’t be fulfilled immediately. The client escalated to the new IT director, who moved heaven and earth to satisfy the request.
The team was disappointed. They felt they were thrown under the bus. It seemed to them that the IT director was rewarding bad client behavior and undermining the team’s reasonable pushback on an unreasonable request. Their expectation was that this would only embolden an already difficult client.
When I broached the subject with the director to understand her perspective, I got a surprisingly different take on the situation.
She agreed that this client was challenging, but intimated that the client’s support was critical for some upcoming budget negotiations. She told me that her understanding was that there was a longtime rift between IT (run by her predecessor) and this client department, and she was working to mend that rift by going above and beyond to address this request as a show of good faith.
Consider both perspectives:
The team thinks their boss just wasted an opportunity to rein in an unruly and abusive client and stick up for them. Every parent knows rewarding tantrums encourages tantrums.
The IT director believes that some of the admittedly poor behavior exhibited by the client is a consequence of history. Her goal with one of her first significant interactions with the challenging client is to rehabilitate the relationship. She hopes that a show of good faith can help turn the corner on the relationship and also gain support for the budget needed to keep her troops gainfully employed.
I’m not saying either perspective was “right”—what’s more important is that this was an example of failing to communicate the context of a decision, which ended up damaging morale.
Absent context, it’s easy for the team to pose enemies:
- “THEY never support us.”
- “THEY are too political.”
- “THEY don’t understand.”
- “THEY always take the client’s side.”
This can lead to the belief that leaders are clueless or nefarious, which is usually not the case. Most people are trying to do the best they can with the information available.
As an armchair quarterback, I’d like to think that in a similar situation I would involve the team in the discussion before I agreed to support the client request, but in the heat of the moment that might not be practical. If I couldn’t consult with the team prior, I would hope that I would promptly circle back to explain my rationale.
I think the most evident problem exposed was the need for more frequent communication between the director and her staff so that the context and motives underlying decisions are clear. Absent that, people are left to assume the worst.