Return to Work Policy through the Lens of Vertical Development

Sep 27, 2023. By Lori Brewer Collins

Mesa Verde Living Room, Colorado by Jerry Park

Mandate a return to work? Continue to allow people to work from home? In the wake of COVID, the Chief People Officer I was coaching knew that she and her Head of HR had to resolve this contentious issue, but they didn’t know how. 

Unilaterally imposing a one-size-fits-all policy covering remote and hybrid work wouldn’t go over well with employees. On the other hand, having no framework at all for making case-by-case decisions wouldn’t go over well with regional and frontline managers.

To take the pulse of the organization on this hot-button issue, the CPO decided to call a meeting of select managers and leaders from different departments, functions and levels. Afterwards, she called me, unsure of how to interpret the wide variety of responses—from loud and dogmatic to quiet and tentative—that she had received. Fortunately, people had candidly shared how they were grappling with this complex issue and making real-time decisions in their daily work life. But by the end of the meeting, the CPO still had no clear consensus from the group about what really mattered from a policy perspective.

What the CPO didn’t know, and what I shared with her, was that their decision-making styles was a natural reflection of their vertical development. People’s decision-making style will mirror where they are in their own development as adults. I shared with her what decision making looks like at each of the 7 stages of adult development within the context of return-to-work policies (see below). By comprehending these developmental stages, the CPO would add to her understanding of the pros and cons of each decision-making style.

1. The Opportunist

The Opportunist demonstrates a self-centered approach. Their decision-making revolves around personal gains and possible losses, with little regard for how any proposed policy could impact the larger workforce. Were they in charge, the policy would reflect their authoritative stance and be shaped to serve their own purposes (as in, “It’s my way or the highway…”).

2. The Diplomat

The Diplomat is concerned with arriving at harmony and consensus. Their decisions are rooted in questions about how policies affect individuals, families, and the group’s sense of cohesiveness. This leader, seeking to preserve a positive image, will be wary of backlash. They will be particularly attuned to resistant voices and potential conflict, which they will want to avoid.

3. The Expert

Leaders at the Expert stage do their due diligence. They hinge their decisions on data, rational analysis of that data, and canvassing a few voices they respect. They value evidence-based solutions and gravitate toward clear-cut answers. These leaders, prioritizing their own and others’ competence, will lean toward policies that stand up to scrutiny. In their quest for the optimal solution, they have no problem stating an unpopular point of view, even if the majority of people don’t want to hear it.

4. The Achiever

The Achiever prioritizes results and strategic outcomes. They assess policies based on their potential to positively impact their area of the business and contribute to overall organizational success. The Achiever will be vocal about their thinking and decision making. With a focus on functional areas coming together to deliver results (e.g., Marketing, R&D, Finance, Product Development, etc.), they will seek to tailor policies that enhance collaborative team dynamics.

5. The Redefining Leader

Leaders at the Redefining stage challenge the originating assumptions and ask a lot of questions that may reframe how everyone is looking at the scenario. Why are you doing this at all? What’s the impact of having people at work who don’t really want to be there? They are open to rigorous inquiry, as well as diverse voices, perspectives and choices. They gather information from other organizations and even other sectors. They view policies as a chance for open dialogue and emphasize inclusivity.

6. The Transforming Leader

Transforming leaders look beyond the horizon and explore the very foundations of how things are done. The Transforming Leader will want a return-to-work policy that feels more voluntary than didactic. Their aim will be to transform the workplace so that it becomes a magnet to attract and retain people who want to genuinely be there. This shifts the emphasis from compliance (e.g., everyone must be in the office at least two days a week and their attendance is monitored) to commitment (e.g., everyone is in the office because they want to be).

7. The Alchemical Leader

It would be rare to see a leader at the Alchemical stage working on a return-to-work policy. Rather than identify as a “corporate citizen”, they tend to see themselves as instruments for impact beyond the organization. They navigate beyond enterprise boundaries and focus on broader societal impacts. Therefore, their response is not likely to come up in an internal meeting.

However, if it does, you will recognize it as the voice that asks a lot of questions and wonders about the merit of creating a policy at all. The Alchemical leader listens and comes up with ideas that are not granular, but more broad-based, even societal. They may well advocate that HR pull together the best thinking on the subject, derive an entirely fresh and balanced approach that accommodates various perspectives, try it out to see if it works, learn as we go, and adjust as needed.

Stay tuned for other scenarios in which vertical development can be seen to impact decision making in your organization.


Photo credit: Jerry Park, “Mesa Verde Living Room, Colorado”, Slow Roads America.

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