STOCKHOLM SYNDROME: When Direct Reports In Remote Offices Think You’re The Problem

Kris Dunn Employee Relations, HR, Kris Dunn 2 Comments

Gather round the campfire, kids, because I’m here today to break down an OD issue that’s currently kicking your organization in the @#@ if you have multiple locations and a martixed organization.

Two words:  Stockholm Syndrome.  What’s that, you ask?  Let’s start with the definition from the free dictionary:

“Stockholm syndrome refers to a group of psychological symptoms that occur in some persons in a captive or hostage situation. It has received considerable media publicity in recent years because it has been used to explain the behavior of such well-known kidnapping victims as Patty Hearst (1974) and Elizabeth Smart (2002). The term takes its name from a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in August 1973. The robber took four employees of the bank (three women and one man) into the vault with him and kept them hostage for 131 hours. After the employees were finally released, they appeared to have formed a paradoxical emotional bond with their captor; they told reporters that they saw the police as their enemy rather than the bank robber, and that they had positive feelings toward the criminal.”

So… here’s how Stockholm Syndrome kicks your company in the @#@.  You have a lot of locations.  You embed professionals from certain functional areas (HR for example) into the remote locations and you have them report (at least in part) to a functional areas boss (like an HR manager out in the field having a straight line or a dotted line to a VP of HR at the home office).  Common, right?  Everything starts great, the HR manager loves your guidance and you’re finishing each other’s sentences.  Hug it out 101.

Then, the HR Manager (fill in any similar professional relationship from your life.  Note – this is about corporate office and field offices, not the relationship of remote workers to a corporate office) starts to grow a little distant.  You can feel them slipping away a little bit.  That’s Stockholm Syndrome, Sally.  The physical isolation creates a bond with the business person that HR Manager is trying to support.  Now, under normal circumstances, that’s helpful.  But the problem is that Stockholm Syndrome means that they’ve gone beyond being tight with the LOB (line of business) person they support.

Way beyond.  Because Stockholm Syndrome has set in, your remote direct report now thinks you’re full of crap.  You’re the police that’s trying to keep the man down.  The business person they support is the pirate with a lot of great ideas who could rock it if you and the corporate office would get the hell out of the way.

Here’s how to tell if a direct or dotted line report has Stockholm Syndrome.  Check it:

1.  They don’t tell you stuff you needed to know.

2.  They don’t tell you stuff you needed to know.

3.  They don’t tell you stuff you needed to know.

4.  I wrote that 3 times because it’s so important.  You find out about that stuff only when something blows up and you play 20 questions after the fact and box them in for the truth.

5.  You sense that you’re not getting all the information you used to get in daily conversations after that happens one time.

What can you do to prevent Stockholm Syndrome?   It’s tough, here’s a couple of things.

1.  Be totally committed to daily calls with the person in question.

2. Pick up the phone EVERY time they call.  No exceptions.  Even if you’re busy and you simply tell them you’ll call them back.  At the proctologist?  Pick up the phone and tell them in a hushed voice where you are and that you’ll have to call them back.  They’ll appreciate the desire to take their call.

3.  Never accept a dotted line relationship if you can avoid it.  Direct report in an official capacity matters.

4.  Don’t be a jerk.  Be supportive and don’t carpet bomb them on a weekly basis with that napalm you call “my personality and passion”.

If you’re in a company with corporate/field office relationships, look around.  Stockholm Syndrome is all around you.

You can’t just give in to that – if you do, don’t the terrorists win?

Comments 2

  1. Thanks Kris. I would add: bring them into the corporate office to feel like part of the team once in a while.

  2. Yes, I agree with Meghan. As a guy who worked at a remote client location it’s always hard when cultures clash – that of the corporate home office and where you are. You have to be in the worker or HR manager’s ear and in front of them whenever possible or risk this whole messy Patty Hearst thing. Trust me…. long distance management requires that you STILL manage. Set goals, set expectations, and reassure and bring them in once in a while for reprogramming – virtually or in person.

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