A Batik shirt may not be the most obvious of management tools. It was, however, one of the small but significant factors that helped security expert Paul Biddle to gain acceptance when working on a sensitive project in Indonesia.
Biddle works out of the Stabilisation Unit, a government body that helps establish peace and security in countries affected by conflict and instability. He is one of a team of 1,000 civilians – experts in diplomacy, defence and development – who can be called upon to go out on deployment to war-torn countries at any time. Their role is to maintain the rule of law, protect key people and institutions, and lay plans for longer-term recovery and development.
These stabilisation experts have to apply their management skills in extremely challenging, hostile and even life-threatening circumstances. So what lessons can managers working on more conventional territory draw from their ability to achieve goals under pressure and against an unstable backdrop?
Biddle’s view is that thorough preparation and cultural insight are both key to success when working under difficult circumstances. The Batik shirt, for example, was the result of some just-in-time research he conducted before a short-notice deployment to Java. He discovered that it was traditional for all Indonesians – even those in uniform – to abandon normal work-wear every Friday in favour of a Batik shirt that showed what region they hailed from.
On arrival in the country, he made the purchase of a brightly coloured Batik shirt one of his first priorities, and was able to wear it a few days later when an important meeting with local officials fell on a Friday. “A colleague told me that it normally takes at least six months for people to accept you, but that by wearing a Batik shirt I had broken down all the barriers,” he explained. “Just a little thing like that showed that I was willing to be part of their culture. It opened up all the doors.”
This sensitive approach also stood Biddle, a Fellow of CMI, in good stead when he went out to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake to support efforts to replace key parts of the infrastructure.
Biddle led a team deployed to oversee reconstruction of two prisons to replace those that had been destroyed in the disaster. It was a challenging task that had to be completed in a volatile environment and against the backdrop of a very slow and unwieldy bureaucratic culture. “The cement factories had been destroyed. We didn’t know if there would be any labour available, we didn’t know what other major construction was going ahead that might take priority, and we didn’t know if we would get approval,” he explained.
The team knew that working with the culture rather than trying to fight against it would be critical to success. They decided to make their operational HQ a tent in the heart of a makeshift government camp, despite the availability of a house, in order to show solidarity with local officials whose offices had been destroyed.
They also followed the local protocol of putting absolutely everything, even small requests for a meeting, formally in writing. This helped the team to win trust and credibility at an early stage. It also led to them being awarded temporary status as members of the Haitian police force – a move that gave them the authority required to move ahead quickly with the project.
Biddle says a number of factors were instrumental in helping the team pull off the project successfully against the odds. One was setting small realistic targets and having a daily “warts and all” debrief to review progress, celebrate achievements and plan for the next day. The other was putting small rules in place to make sure people didn’t crumble under the stress of working in such a high-pressure environment. A common rule on assignments in hostile territory, for example, is that no one drinks alone. In Haiti, Biddle also insisted that his men shave and wear a fresh shirt every day and had at least one day off every week regardless of what might be happening. A mandatory day was set, work of any kind was banned and the team were encouraged to take time out together to watch a film, drive up to the mountains or go for a walk on the beach. “We did it as a team. The aim is that everyone is keeping an eye on each other as well as looking out for any indicators of stress,” he said.
In the space of just a few months, two prisons were already being built and the policies and procedures put in place to run them to international standards.
‘Tough and varied role’
The ability to manage under stress and deal with the cultural dynamic is even more vital in war zones such as Afghanistan, according to Major Robbie Whitfield, who heads up overseas HR operations for the Ministry of Defence. The MOD employs 10,000 locally engaged civilians to support the military in roles ranging from drivers and interpreters to labourers and cleaners.
These local staff are managed on the ground by Labour Support Units – small teams that are sent out from the UK on assignment, usually for a six-month spell. It’s a tough and varied role. Labour Support Unit staff could be defusing a cultural understanding one minute, while organising security clearance for a new recruit the next.
The backdrop of a hostile environment puts the ability to manage employee relations well into a whole new context. “If an interpreter decides they are not going to work, it’s a life or death situation,” explains Whitfield. “Interpreters can read the atmospherics on the street in a way we can’t. It’s extremely dangerous to send people out without the right ability to communicate and read the ground. If you’re not careful, small problems can soon turn into major issues. So a line manager may say something that is misconstrued, and next thing, you have 50 employees refusing to work. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding of culture, perhaps they said something and it wasn’t received in the way it was meant, or was said in a way that wasn’t appropriate. These things blow up very quickly and the rumour network carries information around far faster than actual fact.”
Labour Support Unit managers also need to exercise careful judgement and sensitivity to ensure that they find the right recruits and lay the groundwork for them to be integrated into the team. Generally, workers are recruited from outside their local region so they are safe from intimidation. “Tribalism is an issue,” explains Whitfield, who is also a Fellow of CMI. “Ideally, we seek to recruit people who have an understanding of tribal dynamics and the areas in which they have to work, but we have to make sure they are not more loyal to the tribe than to us. We also have to do security vetting and clearance to make sure the people with the right skills are the people we think are safe enough to employ. If people are going to be interpreting in a meeting between key figures, they have to be on our side more than anybody else’s.”
Managers working in this complex environment must pay close attention to employee engagement – making sure their local recruits mix well with the army community they are there to support. “These people are key to what we do,” says Whitfield. “If we treat these guys well, they will contribute to our wider campaign and operational goals. When something starts going wrong in the face of the enemy, they may well save a soldier’s life.”
Whitfield suggests that corporate managers can draw some important lessons from those who manage in hostile environments. Managers in the UK, he says, are “slaves to regulation” and could benefit from taking a more flexible approach. “That inhibits our practice, not just in the way we work but also in the way we think,” he says. “Having things laid down in black and white is supposed to protect the more vulnerable, not to inhibit employers’ ability to be dynamic. Regulation is often an excuse to say no.”
Managers working in hostile scenarios also tend to be more willing to take risks than their private sector counterparts. “Risk-averse organisations typically aren’t dynamic because they don’t put people in difficult circumstances where they are going to be allowed to make a mistake,” says Whitfield. “If you can give responsibility to people who come up with good ideas, typically they will deliver for you. But if you stovepipe them and don’t allow them to be dynamic in their early career, they become a carbon copy of the people they work for. We recruit from quite a diverse background in the military and for key positions in Afghanistan. The things people come up with often surprise me – novel solutions I just wouldn’t expect to come across in the UK.”
A mix of formal and on-the-job training is used to make sure that managers who go out in labour-support teams are prepared for their role. They receive a five-day induction to how HR services are delivered in a battle environment, and then go out on secondment to a number of different military HR units, usually in Kenya or Germany, to give them hands-on experience. After three or four months, they are assessed to see what further development they might need, before they are sent off on their first deployment to Afghanistan, where they are placed in a team with more experienced operators.
“By then, they should be hitting the ground running,” says Whitfield. “Not everyone comes up to scratch and some people don’t return for a second tour, but more than 90 per cent of people who deploy to operational labour-support units are desperate to do it again.”
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