Dear Office-Politics Veterans,
I am in an HR-related role but the irony is, I am bad at dealing with people.
Here’s my situation…
My colleagues have seen HR as an avenue to test waters for challenging the management’s policies or practices. More often, i’m in a difficult role as i can’t reveal the management’s decision & any confidential information. However, the informal politics here is vibrant & i am seen as the free-loafer of information instead of a contributor. Not that it matters but it has seriously affected my work.
One of the Accounts officer has been telling tales whenever there are differences in policies being applied for different staff. However on a HR point of view, it is due to entitlements that are sometimes inherent to the particular employee which we are informed not to reveal as to the exceptional policies applied. The impact of such informal complaints about HR being biased has brought about distrust for HR & also the top management’s confidence in me being a team-player. We are now not allowed access to budget information & also not given proper respect in the Company. Verbal abuse is sometimes heard across the office & it is getting very demoralizing to work against the staff rather than to work with them.
I have tried to reason out with such colleagues in an amicable way but was turned down flat as they felt their benefits are comparably marginalized (actually they are above the national average). When my boss tried to counsel the staff, i was seen as the complainer, hence aggravate the matter so now nobody dares to speak to me anymore.
Please advise what i should do to resolve the matter. I cannot work if staff does not talk to me anymore.
Awaiting for your sound advice,
Inept Office Politician
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON AND DR. MARTY SELDMAN
Dear “Inept” (Your Word, NOT Ours!),
Thanks for reaching out, since on the ladder of learning, being aware of deficits is the first step to improvement and you sound humble enough to see your areas for improvement. After all, Unconscious Incompetence at a skill merely leads to staying in the dark, but instead, you are at the development stage we call Conscious Incompetence! That’s GOOD! It means that rather than living on that famous river in Egypt (“De-Nial!”), you are at least aware of gaps in your knowledge, aptitudes, skills, and strategies. Hopefully our response will point to steps toward cultivating Conscious Competence and, perhaps eventually, Unconscious Competence whereby you are effective and it even becomes second nature and natural. But first things first.
BROADCAST YOUR OWN POSITIVE “BUZZ”
By “Buzz,” we mean the gossip, labels, traits, words, and characteristics that are attached to your name when it comes up in conversation. We worry that you might be creating and perpetuating a negative Buzz (your perception and reputation) partly through how you view yourself and talk about yourself. Just in your letter, you call yourself “inept” and say “I am bad at dealing with people.” Whether or not you are as proficient as you want to be, name-calling and putting yourself down are forms of beating yourself up that only invite others to do the same, since you convey that you are not confident, you’re a victim with a target on your back, and that you do not belong in HR. We are not suggesting that you pretend you are flawless or misrepresent your expertise, just that you not give others ammunition for disrespect through phrases and labels you use against yourself. Leave that to others!
JOIN THE HR CLUB
Unfortunately, the Human Resources function in many companies faces challenges similar to yours, since by definition HR is a staff position that can become marginalized off to the side of “the real line business,” the revenue producers, the “cash cows.” Add to the recipe the fact that HR not only must represent management policy and practice, as well the charter of constantly fielding complaints and grievances of dissatisfied people who are venting about issues about which HR can often do nothing but help folks cope and understand business rationale for decisions, and VOILA… the role frequently ends up feeling less appreciated and lower on the corporate totem pole than others.
Often, HR’s political stock and place on the organizational food chain is lower, so our HR colleagues and clients increasingly seek ways to reshape their corporate image, educate others about their contributions, and reposition themselves as value-added strategic business partners “at the table.” So try to take heart that your situation is not unique, not to mention the notion that many other positions carry their own similar negative reactions and labels that are tied to just doing their intended jobs— hence the phrase, “people want to kill the messenger.” So bottom line? Don’t take it personally, or let the situation become emotionally loaded and full of resentment, or your feelings will merely trigger behaviors that will further alienate you.
HR DOES DEMAND POLITICAL TACT AND VERBAL DISCIPLINE
One cornerstone of “political savvy” is the practice of verbal discipline — knowing when to open your mouth and when to hold your poker cards closer to your chest. It is true that your function inherently puts you in scenarios that are also like that of any manager, who often must represent positions from above to those below, where they are not the creators of the particular policy or procedure. So your dilemma is a classic “stuck in the middle” role in which you must walk a tightrope of conveying an empathic, listening posture to build trust while simultaneously respecting the organization’s expectations about information sharing limits or actual managerial decisions.
So strive to find ways to communicate caring and concern without agreeing with an employee’s complaint, or worse, blaming management to get yourself out of an awkward interaction. We’re glad you are not falling into the trap of “crapping in your own nest,” which is a distasteful phrase that accurately captures how some managers or staff people caught in your bind fall into saying bad things about a top level decision just to help themselves escape the discomfort of an upset employee. But they end up stinking up the environment in which they must continue to live and work, while the word can leak out that they have taken sides against the company’s top stakeholders.
So continue to do your job with concern for people who come to you while maintaining integrity by calmly representing the perspectives you are paid to present, and while firmly maintaining boundaries regarding what you reveal. Search for ways to show support while avoiding crossing the line. Ask the complainers how you can help them cope with the situation short of giving in, lobbying against a managerial decision that is a “done deal” or non-negotiable. Express the desire to be helpful even though you cannot do all the policy-bucker wishes you’d do. Overall, regarding the handling of conversations about policy, you are probably doing the right thing, so now the challenge really is how protect yourself from the political fallout you describe as the consequences of just doing your job. HOW?
NETWORK, EDUCATE, RE-SHAPE PERCEPTIONS, AND BUILD A POSITIVE REPUTATION
You cannot stop people from reacting negatively and badmouthing you when they don’t get what they want from you (information, support or lobbying for their point of view, policy revisions, etc). But you can buffer yourself from those who try to trash you by continually developing a network of relationships with bosses and peers who know the excellent work you do, and by educating others about corporate stances you are permitted to discuss.
Some HR pros gradually shape perceptions by writing “Did You Know?” articles in the company newsletter or intra-net website about comparative compensation pay scales within their industry, by conducting team visits for mini-presentations about topics that might increase understanding of policies, etc.
Find ways to invite broader perspective from nay-sayers by pointing to role models like the most famous football coach of all time, Vince Lombardi, who said, “Treating people equally does not mean treating them the same.” Such quotes might address specific complaints such as the one you reference about people not realizing that different performers do receive different rewards. (We would, however, omit the word “entitlement” from any explanations.).
Again, the more emotional compassion you express towards disgruntled whiners, the more it will earn you the right to gently invite them to understand the limits of what you are allowed to share without badmouthing the rules or rule-makers. If they are grown-ups, they will understand and back off. If not, there’s not much you can do anyway! The worse that can happen is these same folks stop coming to you, as you mention. From the way you describe things, perhaps that is a blessing in disguise rather than a curse. We are assuming there ARE other parts of your job that you can focus upon, all the while making sure that your efforts and contributions in these other ways are not a secret to those who matter. Make sure that HR is viewed as more than the dumping ground for problems, but instead as a positive, contributing function in many other ways. Of course, this is a bigger issue than just being about you alone.
GET THERE FIRST
A helpful tactic for handling a person who you suspect will badmouth you is to anticipate their negative rumor-mongering and to “Get There First.” If you can guess the person or group they might trash your name to before they do so, consider proactively getting in touch to provide a casual, non-emotional “heads-up” tip-off that that person (especially a boss) might be hearing from the individual who you suspect is going to mud-sling against you. Simply let the person know the MIGHT hear about your interaction since you had to convey some news or maintain a corporate stance that they were not happy about. This takes the power out of their game of “uproar” by taking away the first strike. You are NOT trashing them, but merely providing the courtesy of previewing how a negative person might be complaining about how you are doing your job. Depending upon how often the complaining rabble-rouser engages in this kind of verbal sabotage, you might even take comfort in the possibility that others tire of his negativity and perhaps may even sympathize with you instead of “pile on” to his gossip.
LOBBY FOR SUPPORT
One curious aspect of your letter we frankly do not understand (other than your phrase, the “free-loafer of information” which requires clarity, please) is that you say that top management is among those that view you as a problem when in fact, you are saying you’re merely upholding THEIR policies and enforcing their limits and decisions. So we are confused regarding what data we are missing. How have you become viewed with distrust by them? Perhaps here is where you would be better served to have your own immediate boss’ support versus having him/her “counsel staff.” We’d think that your own manager approaching top management to clarify any concerns about your handling of issues would help to right the ship that is apparently is turbulent waters. At least you’d receive information about what to do specifically to alter negative perceptions of management if your boss can ask exactly how you should have represented their views differently. It may even be that you are incorrect in making some assumptions about why management is withholding budget data and the like from you. Something is not adding up, so please do get back to us with further information to fill in the holes?
Thanks, and here’s to gradual learning about this nebulous, fuzzy part of corporate life, politics. We recommend your grabbing a copy of our book for further input on many dimensions and case scenarios that bump up against the type of pain you’ve experienced. We wish you well!
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. Co-authors,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success
Rick Brandon, Ph.d. and Marty Seldman, Ph.D. are Co-authors, Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Marty Seldman is one of America’s most experienced executive coaches. His 35-year career includes expertise in executive coaching, group dynamics, cross-cultural studies, clinical psychology, and training.