Fresh perspective for those working in ‘back office’ roles

9 Dec 2019
Carrie Birmingham

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Are you curious about how you can have a greater impact in your role? Are you in a back-office team and want to build more powerful partnerships? Do you feel ‘done to’ and want to understand how you could do something to change this?

Front office and back office 

There are power dynamics across teams within all organisations.  It is particularly palpable when you bring together teams who deliver core business activities (often called front office) with those in back-office or support roles.  Often greater status and power has been bestowed to sales teams, journalists or designers (insert your own industry front office team here), in their access to bonuses, selection for company awards, or access to resources.  I nicknamed them the golden geese, inspired by the Aesop Fable of the goose that laid the golden egg.   Whilst the intention is to preserve the valued contribution of these ‘geese’, the consequence is to signal to the back-office teams (e.g.Finance, HR, Marketing or technology teams) that they are less powerful and hence should be subservient.  Even our labels for these teams e.g.  ‘support’ or ‘back office’ are signals to the people within them that they should see themselves as less worthy and in my experience, this can breed resentment.  

This dynamic isn’t just under the radar. I am sure you have worked with geese, who point out they are more important, using this dynamic as a chance to make demands to get what they need.  In most cases, it’s more subtle than this with comments like: “You work in HR, what do you expect?”.

My observations and insights about this are below. They relate to my experience in HR but you can easily replace HR with any function that is feeling ‘done to’.  When faced with this dynamic, I noticed how I could default to keeping myself small and take on this ‘lower status’ in how I acted.  So it became a vicious circle: the lower status I felt, the more I acted this way and by doing so reinforced the systemic dynamic. 

What underlying assumption drives you?

In 2009, I read Ed Schein’s Process consultation book as part of my Master’s programme. Whilst I wouldn’t encourage you to do so (it’s a pretty heavy read), it allowed me to see some underlying assumptions that sat beneath how I was working.  This awareness allowed me to notice my own mindset, and so I started experimenting with the following approaches:

  • When I was working from an assumption of being “the expert: I was able to offer wisdom and expertise on the subject at hand and advise a manager on a way forward.  Operating from this assumption made me feel smart (which gave my ego a boost), but it assumed I had all the information I needed to give accurate answers (which I rarely did), that there was a right answer (often there were pros & cons) and reduced the ownership of the manager asking me because it felt like they were ‘outsourcing’ the problem.
  • When I was working from an assumption of being “the fixer or pair of hands”, a manager wanted me to implement their actions or ideas with limited influence on what or how. This typically happened with someone very senior, where I could find myself stepping in to do something for them which helped them, but really wasn’t my job or was more focused on me “getting something” done that utilised my core skills.  This ‘pair of hands’ approach was often appreciated by my stakeholder, but left me feeling undervalued.

If I was really honest with myself, and this wasn’t a comfortable realisation,  I could see that these two assumptions were being driven by my own feeling of having lower status (and maybe not being worthy) and so feeling that I had to prove my value to stakeholders or clients.  Whilst they were helpful when I was building new partnerships, they were less useful with people I knew well. 

So I started to look for opportunities to operate from a new assumption – that of ‘Collaborator‘ or ‘Thinking Partner‘. If I assumed we were both equal, and paid attention to my own habits, I was able to move into a different mode.  This enabled us to embrace that the topic in hand was complicated and so we needed to leverage our collective insights and debate a way forward.  I would ask questions to help us to get to a greater depth (rather than jumping to an answer) and also pay attention to how we were working together – not just what we were doing together – and so we were able to build a more trusted partnership.  One of the tests I used for being in this mindset was whether I left meetings without action points.  


So what?

I am hoping you found this blog useful and I would invite you to reflect on the themes and ideas raised within it.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the power dynamics in your organisation? Do you feel equal to your colleagues?
  • What underlying assumptions do you think drive your work with colleagues?
  • How could you experiment with creating collaborative partnerships operating from an assumption of equal power?