Backing your staff: a cultural perspective

Joe was supposed to report that the wiring in Station B had been fixed. However, Joe got a call from his wife and forgot to do so. As a result, Station B remained closed for one extra hour, causing a 5000 Euro loss.

Joe’s boss, Garth, told Joe that he had nothing to worry about. Garth sent out a mail saying that “I ordered that Joe wait an hour after the repair to be absolutely sure that there would be no need to close Station B again”.  Garth had backed Joe. 

Ed had far less luck. He showed up to work 20 minutes late, delaying the deployment of new equipment. Ed’s boss, Carmen, castigated Ed in a group Whatsapp for “chronic tardiness”. Carmen had not backed Ed.

Backing is a two edged sword. On one hand, there is an expecation is some cultures for automatic “artiliary cover” for errors and if and when there is an issue to be discussed, dirty linen needs to be washed so that no one else can see. On the other hand, backing can lead to cover up, lying, and constant blaming between groups.

I want here to relate to the cultural expectations around backing. In middle eastern, Asian and African societies, there is an expectation of benevolence from the superior which includes “backing as default”, and in return for that benevolence, there is obediance. In other societies, an expectation for transparency overrides the expecatiotion of “cover fire”, and thus, backing is often less automatic and not as being the default behaviour expected from managers.

In global organizations, backing is more complex. “Let’s take it offline” is a sign of backing, albeit obtuse. “Let me take care of it with HQ” is also a sign of backing. However, “Ned and Wu, I do not plan to babysit this issue, figure out how to deal with it on your own” is backing for Ned, who feels like he is being treated like an adult, and a slap in the face for Wu, who wanted the boss to step in and put Ned in his place, which Wu feels is not Wu’s job.

Here are a few guidelines I have developed for managers pondering what type of backing to provide?

1) Do I want to be consistent, or deal case by case?

2) Do I want to mold my employee’s expectations, or adapt myself to how s/he has been brought up and educated?

3) What behaviour will ensure that I myself am never surprised or lied to?

4) How can I give backing without concealing, and how can I be matter-of-fact without letting down my people?

And a short story to end. I was in Asia in a country that I certainly could not use my Israeli passport to get in. Mr T, the country manager, always backed his local people from the wrath of the Dutch based HQ when there was a policy infringement. I was working with Mr T about how he is (negatively) perceived in HQ. T was certain that if he lessened the backing he gave his people, “I will lose both HQ and my employees. Allon Sir, don’t force me into a lose-lose sitatuation”.

One more interesting insight for those interested in “backing” in China. The CCP (Mao in particular) was known for sending the people closest to him for re-education. Over time, it became clear that he backed almost one. However, when reads Vogel’s  biography of Deng, it is clear that Deng got very special conditions when he was send for re-education in the countryside (as a mechanic.) Btw, I am aware that this paragraph interests almost no one :).












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