Relations Between Headquarters and Field Offices – Quick Reflections

Almost every organization with a national headquarters and regional offices experiences significant tension between the two. Notwithstanding Tolstoy’s observation that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” in our experience the unhappiness that stems from national-regional tensions (or any set-up with a central headquarters and field offices) is actually remarkably similar from one organization to the next.

Here are a few thoughts on dealing with the tension:

  • Recognize familiar patterns. It’s not uncommon for field staff to feel that they’re doing the “real” work and that national headquarters staff don’t share the same urgency as people in the field, or for national office staff to view the field staff as demanding and impatient. These dynamics are real and painful, but you can at least take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone!
  • Accept the leopard and its spots. The similarity of patterns across organizations stems partly from the contrasting profiles of who gets hired into field versus headquarters roles. A good field staff member – or at least the leader of a field office – needs to be an entrepreneur. The best are often like mini-Executive Directors: they are relentless, energetic, driven, and sometimes impatient, and they often get things done by asking for forgiveness rather than permission. Headquarters staff, in many cases, are either functional experts (like finance folks) or program designers. Either way, they tend to be highly analytical, often think in terms of systems and standardization, and may be detail-obsessed perfectionists. Neither side is wrong (we write all this with great affection for both types of staffers!) – in fact, both sides are doing their jobs and are acting in accord with the patterns that led you to hire them in the first place. So when a state director gets frustrated that a national program person won’t make an exception on an expense policy, and the program person is turned off by the state director’s dogged persistence on the issue, it can be helpful to recognize that both are being who you hired them to be!
  • Get your hands dirty. When managing the seemingly inevitable tensions that arise, one common complaint from regional staff is that national team members don’t get the reality out in the field – and often they’re right. Get key national team staff to spend time in the regions seeing work up-close so they can understand the real context that regional staff work in.
  • Build shared leadership. In addition to ensuring national team members spend time in the field, make sure to involve regional staff in national affairs. In particular, don’t default to assuming that your leadership team should be comprised of the heads of your national teams. Find ways to incorporate regional office heads into the leadership of the organization and into senior decision-making structures – your decisions will be better informed by how things will play out on the ground, your regional leaders will be more bought into the direction of the organization, and they’ll get their staff members more invested as well.
  • Heed the warning signs: where there’s smoke, there’s likely fire. If regional staff present complaints about functions from the national office in a way that sounds strident or impatient, it can be easy for national leaders to dismiss the complaints, but doing that is often a huge mistake. Listen to the underlying issue and take a close look at whether there’s merit to the complaints. Regional staff are generally reasonable people who just want to get their jobs done, so if they’re complaining, there’s probably a good reason. (And recognize the converse as well – usually if regional staff are receiving great support from the national office, they’re grateful and as a national leader you’ll know it.) The bottom line: take complaints from the regional staff seriously, investigate, and fix underlying problems.
  • Develop norms of interaction. One very helpful intervention can be to work with relevant people from both the regional and national sides to develop and then disseminate principles that capture how things work when they go well. You might include principles like “when in doubt, ask,” “go straight to the source,” “assume the best,” etc.
  • Individualize. Don’t do what we do in this piece and over-generalize! People on both sides often make the mistake of attributing the behavior of one individual to the entire group. For instance, an unreasonable-sounding state director may lead national people to think of all field staff as angry (when the cause was just one frustrated individual), and a national office person who doesn’t follow through and send something they should have can lead field staff to think that the national staff doesn’t get how much pressure they’re under. In fact, you might create a norm around avoiding the use of “field,” “regional,” or “national” as the subject of a sentence (as in “national is always asking us to do stuff…” or “field is so demanding…”).
  • Build bonds. Ultimately, no amount of cajoling and norm-setting will replace good old human trust-building. Periodically bring the relevant players together in a setting where they can have constructive discussions about a topic of shared interest (not just their relationship), and give them lots of space to bond informally. Greasing the wheels with good food and drink can help.