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Strategy v Policy

From Maria Simpson’s listserv.

For quite a while a staff member had requested more work on “policy,” anticipating that working on policy would provide greater qualifications for a promotion. The work had been assigned, but the projects were late or never finished or not well done, while at the same time, current responsibilities, not identified specifically as “policy projects” were being met very successfully. Comments on the uncompleted projects were perceived more as anger than serious feedback on performance. Clearly, the stated interest or ability in policy was not demonstrated in actions.

When this staff member did in fact ask for a promotion, the response was that the position was open, policy-oriented, and competitive, all of which the staff member understood to be in air quotes. Continued conversations emphasizing the focus of the position and the objectivity and competitiveness of the recruitment process never changed the staff member’s assumption that the position was his.

Sometimes people use the same words but mean entirely different things by them, or we bring different contexts or understandings to the words, so two very different conversations are taking place and we don’t even know it. Clearly, these conversations can’t be successful, and what’s worse, we won’t know why, which was happening in this case.

It became clear that the staff member was trying to redefine his current responsibilities as “policy” projects, so maybe using another word would clarify the differences between the two positions and reinforce the successes of the current position. Maybe “strategy” was the better word.

It was also thought that the staff member would be more interested in current assignments if a more “prestigious” and maybe more accurate word like “strategy” were used to define current responsibilities. The current job was seen as supporting long-range strategy anyway, and it might actually be a more accurate term in the long run.

The lesson here is not about what leads to promotion, because that’s different in organizations, but about expanding our ideas of what to explore and discuss when a conversation doesn’t seem to go anywhere and might even be escalating. It’s time to clarify exactly what is being discussed.

One technique for expanding ideas is to “go back to the last agreement,” to the last place people seemed to agree, and ask some new questions, clarify misunderstandings, and see if another approach can be found, even one as simple as using a different word. In this case, updating the current job description so that it more accurately described the purpose and function of the position would have helped to clarify the differences in the two positions and accurately describe the importance and impact of the current position. That step alone might have made it clear to the staff member that the current position was important to the organization and the new position focused on an area that wasn’t of much interest to him. Maybe he didn’t need a new position to feel important and recognized.

What words are you using that sound good at the moment but might have the wrong connotation or be wrong for the situation, and what other words would open up a conversation and reduce disagreement if you found them?

Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week. And do a few crossword puzzles to expand your vocabulary.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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