During a recent team building class with an agency group, employees began to complain about their headquarters back in Washington, DC.  “They have no idea what we do out here,” one of them said.  “Yeah,” said another, “and they just sit there and issue directives that make no sense, given how much our funding has been cut.”

I was thinking this morning about what a ubiquitous paradigm that seems to be.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a private sector organization or a government agency, there seems to always be an “us versus them” mentality between the field offices and the headquarters or corporate office.  The field believes the head office people sit around creating policies and procedures that are out of touch with reality and designed simply to drive everyone crazy; and the head office people believe that the field people have no empathy for how busy they are and no recognition for the importance of their work.  It’s a classic case of everyone thinking that everyone else needs to walk a mile in my shoes.  And rarely is anyone willing to try those other shoes on.

Why is that?  It seems like a classic case of fundamental attribution error.  Lacking information about corporate mission, vision, goals and objectives, field staff members fill in the gaps in their knowledge with stories about the HQ’s motivation for every directive and assume they must have bad intentions, a lack of competence, or poor work ethic.  HQ, likewise, assumes that when something doesn’t get done or doesn’t get done to specs, it must be deliberate on the part of the field staff.

So how do you fix it?  Cross-training and shadowing opportunities between field and corporate staff would obviously be a step in the right direction, but it’s expensive and most organizations have had their travel budgets cut lately.  I think it comes down to how you create more virtual communication avenues between offices.  More and more I’m seeing federal agencies using video teleconference technology for meetings rather than having people travel, and in fact I’m even starting to get requests to do multi-day training workshops via VTC.  What about having “walk a mile in my shoes” sessions by VTC?  Participants could share information about their objectives, challenges, communication preferences and daily routines, with the goal of understanding how to work better together.

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