Why won’t people do what you ask them to do?

Every organisation, large or small, faces the same issue at some point: how does head office get local offices to do what they want them […]

Every organisation, large or small, faces the same issue at some point: how does head office get local offices to do what they want them to do, without robbing them of the freedom and energy to excel? To stay consistent to the core, yet free enough to drive their own growth locally. You see it in the biggest multinationals when the centre wants to ‘leverage the power of our global status’ and the country offices say ‘yes, but our market is different’. And you see it in small companies, where management can get frustrated by staff who don’t share the same passion for ‘their baby’ or unnerved by more entrepreneurial staff who, often with the best intentions, are full of energy and action on things that don’t quite fit the plan. You even see it in families, where parents struggle to find the balance between putting boundaries in place to protect their children, and giving them the freedom to develop.

I was lucky enough the other day to attend a seminar given by Mark Robb. He pulled together the findings of some of the leading research into employee engagement (including the famous Gallup Q12 survey and Professor Alimo Metcalffe’s work to highlight the most powerful behaviours leaders (from the global chief executive to the boss at the next desk) can display. They boil down to giving people the clarity of knowing where the company is heading, the freedom to play to their strengths, specific positive feedback when they do good things, and showing concern for them individually (my paraphrasing – Mark was much more comprehensive).

There are big lessons in this not only for individual leaders and managers, but also for organisations themselves. The best way to align organisations is to provide clarity on the overall direction, but freedom to do things in a way that best suits local market conditions or changing circumstances.

This flexibility in a framework is what we push for in our work every day, creating ideas and templates that provide consistency to the core brand idea and PR theme (as well as driving efficiencies), yet enable teams on the ground the freedom to tailor materials for local topicality and sensibilities. Without the framework there is anarchy; without the flexibility there’s apathy. One of the best comments I ever heard about a programme of ours was a researcher saying they’d never seen a brand talked about so consistently in the media in different countries without being identikit. The voice was consistent to the brand, but authentic to each country.

And we have to manage it inside our company too. We’ve always tried to give our people the freedom to express themselves, develop their own thinking and build careers that suit their particular talents and aspirations. But equally, we have to provide clarity of direction – where we are headed as a company – and the rules of engagement: what’s acceptable in terms of expressing yourself, and what’s going too far and making life difficult for the team. We created a Behavioural Framework last year that attempts to strike this balance and guides the way we work in teams, the way we give feedback, and the way we help each other be the best we can be. These guidelines have become even more important now that we have our first overseas office (in Singapore) as well as former salties and freelancers working on projects, and more and more people working flexibly and remotely.

Engagement is the goal in each case. If you can provide employees with clarity and freedom you get engaged staff who can achieve more. Likewise, if brand owners can provide local teams with clear ideas and tools to use, alongside the freedom to tailor to local requirements, you get engaged local teams and engaging communications.