A spotters guide to staff networks: don’t squash the cake

I’ve recently been involved in a number of conversations about building communities, so I thought it was worth writing up some thoughts on a small project I was part of at the Cabinet Office

A Mille feuille

But first, some background:

I’ve written a little before about how I was involved with staff networks when I was at the Cabinet Office. I did a little project as part of the Cabinet Office Accelerator programme about how I might give more support and visibility to networks and make others more aware of the work they do.

As a white, straight, non-disabled, middle(ish) class woman I didn’t necessarily feel like I fit with a particular network, which were all broadly based around different diversity characteristics. But it did seem clear to me that networks were undervalued, under resourced and had a number of crossovers in their aims. So I decided I’d much rather work between them all, as an ally, supporting where I could and helping the groups to see their commonalities, encouraging them to share resources wherever they could.

It was that which lead me to run Mental Health awareness week with the Able network (for colleagues with disabilities) even though it wasn’t strictly-speaking their remit. Later, I decided to join Able, because I felt like it was a good place by which to do more work and champion different kinds of people. And, when One Team Gov came along with a looser sense of principles and connected-ness, I joined that.

Because of this I learned a lot about how staff networks in my department operated, and when my boss, who had just joined the Future Leaders Scheme, heard about a project examining networks she suggested I apply.

Even though I wasn’t part of the FLS I got accepted to the team and got to work with some awesome FLS and SLS (Senior Leaders Scheme) colleagues.

We had an exam question which I can’t quite remember now (two job and department changes since then mean my emails are now in the ether) but it was something along the lines of…

“How can we (senior leadership) enable staff networks to deliver more?”

Quiet discomfort

Something about this question made me uncomfortable, from my point of view (at the time) I felt that most staff networks (especially diversity networks) worked at a grassroots level, tending to be made up of a group of people engaged around a cause or set of causes to provide space, opportunity and support.

Some network leads had described to me, with barely contained frustration, how senior leaders who might ask them, “Have you fixed that for me yet?” while feeling powerless to solve the big issues due to lack of leadership buy-in.

Diversity network leads often did huge amounts of additional work over and above their day jobs, with little to no fanfare.

So the notion that these groups could be used to deliver on departmental objectives felt like a stretch. Thankfully many in our group agreed with me and we had discussions around altruism, and how networks form around shared values. One of our group said “nobody acts 100% altruistically, they do things based on their values and belief system” and that’s something which has stuck with me, and formed the basis for how we proceeded.

Because thinking up metaphors is both useful and stupid at the same time, I described this as networks being like a beautiful mille feuille cake, made up of layers of thin pastry and cream, if you put pressure on that cake then all of the cream will spill out of the sides and you lose it’s beautiful integrity. So too, if you put pressure on a network to deliver work on your behalf, you’re potentially destroying it’s structural integrity.

NB. Mille feuille could be seen as hierarchical because of all those layers, so this is an imperfect metaphor. What would be better? Candy Floss? Thin delicate strands signifying the bonds of those networked relationships. What happens when you put pressure on candy floss? It squashes up, it closes ranks and becomes solid, impenetrable (but still tasty).

Candy floss squashing and eating

Developing a “spotters guide”

I posited the idea of developing a spotters guide to staff networks, this would provide an overview, mapped to real networks within government, that would help senior leadership to understand how to work with them, to enable leaders to understand their values and belief systems and give pointers for how best to interact with them, and it’s that which I thought it worth outlining here.

It’s worth noting that these groups are based on my experiences and observations, not at all scientific, but it provides some pointers.

  1. Unsung heroes
  2. Champion seekers
  3. Back scratchers
  4. Rebels

It’s also worth noting that this looks at staff diversity networks because they are the most visible, and provide a starting point. There are obviously webs and webs of informal networks across the public sector that are almost invisible, how you go about harnessing the power of that is an altogether different blog post!

David Bowie singing “we can be heroes” (represents Unsung Heroes)

1.Unsung Heroes

The networks you can’t see. These tend to be a small and focused group of people around a very specific issue, that means that they aren’t widely known but they do a valuable job within the department. An example might be a Carers network, who support one another with various issues and emotional support. The chairs of these networks do huge amounts of unseen and unrecognised emotional labour on behalf of the department.

Action: you can’t see them, but you need to, find them and support them because they are doing a job that the department itself isn’t doing. Supporting these small networks will enable the individuals to feel more included at work and will help them to deliver more as individuals.

A cheerleader (represents Champion Seekers)

2.Champion Seekers

These networks are grouped around a specific issue and undertake initiatives to further that cause, they are typically slightly smaller as there are a smaller group of people who associate with their cause, an example might be a disability or mental health network.

As a result they might do things like organise events at a grassroots level for other employees, but also offer support to colleagues in a similar way to the Unsung Heroes. Sometimes what this network achieves is low level or smaller in scale, but often well received by colleagues. They need a champion to amplify that work.

Action: find a proactive champion who will talk about the good work these networks are doing and support them to achieve it either through amplification or resources.

A cartoon gif of a little girl scratching a bear’s back. The caption reads “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” = (idiom) you do a favour for me and I’ll do a favour for you (Represents Back Scratchers)

3.Back Scratchers

These networks tend to be more visible because there are a greater number of people who identify with them, they might be a gender eqality or ethnic minority (BAME) network. They have a lot of demands on their time from HR and leadership colleagues because they align with a departmental and civil service objectives very closely. Typically networks in this category have a set of people who are more senior themselves, or have more established links into leadership.

These networks have a more symbiotic relationship with leadership and are likely to take on projects based on leaders direction in order to curry favour that they can utilise later. They have a set agenda and will lobby to make change happen.

Action: probably none, you know who these people are and they know you.

A cartoon of a teacher with a caption that reads “Hmm, Class disruptors, huh?” (Represents Rebels)

4. Rebels

Harder to define, rebels tend to be change makers and disruptors within your organisation. “Zoomed out” people who think in terms of systems and services and want to change and improve things generally. They might have a set of beliefs or goals but these may change over time. They are likely to be highly networked individuals with a number of different connections and interests.

They may not have links into leadership but are empowered enough to make those connections as and when they need them (though typically have a more cautious attitude to hierarchy). (Yes I’m clearly describing One Team Gov but I’m sure there are many more of these informal groups).

Action: watch them, if they need anything they will come to you. Trust that they have used their networks and empowerment to make suitably sensible suggestions, listen to them.

And that’s it, what do you think? Are there any groups that I’ve missed out or would you change anything about these pen portraits, I’m really keen to hear your thoughts and perspectives! Thanks for reading!

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