The smart way to play dumb

Have you ever considered that the best way to improve your international payroll organisation might be to play dumb and earn a reputation for being a pain in the butt? Granted, it’s probably not the self-image you had in mind when you set out on your payroll career – but while most of us spend our lives trying to cover up our knowledge gaps, gloss over our mistakes and deflect attention from all the stuff we never got round to doing, there’s a different way of approaching all of this.

It’s about not knowing, not accepting – and not caring whether people dislike you for it.

Take the whole knowledge thing. One of the challenges payroll professionals often face when they move from single country to multi-country environments is the fear that they may lose some of their value. If I’ve spent 10 years working my way up the ranks of French payroll functions, part of what defines me is my knowledge of legislation, practices and corporate policy. I don’t just mean the fundamentals that underpin payroll qualifications – I mean the experience that tells me that when an hourly worker seconded to another corporate entity goes sick on the 34th hour of the working week while singing the Marseillaise with his left leg stuck out the window, the appropriate tax treatment will be found on page 354 of the light blue manual that’s currently propping up the wobbly leg under the boardroom table.

The problem in a multi-country payroll environment is that this kind of specialist knowledge has less relevance. Of course it’s still helpful – so much of payroll is common around the world that all contextual experience has great value. But being a global payroll manager is about far more than payroll technical expertise – and the transition from country guru to global newbie can be challenging. Sometimes, the temptation is to cover up. I’m not talking about lying – I’m talking about those spine-chilling moments when you realize you have no idea what someone’s talking about and decide to smile, nod in vague agreement and grab your phone to take an urgent imaginary call.

The further you get into the international arena, the more you realize that plenty of other people are playing exactly the same game. In fact, I’m sure I’ve been in meetings where if I’d interrupted the conversation and asked ten people round the table to write down what they thought was actually going on, I’d have got ten different answers. The only thing stopping me was the knowledge that I’d have contributed the eleventh.

So wouldn’t it be better for all of us if, instead of pretending we knew what was going on, we asked questions? If your IT department is bamboozling you with technical reasons as to why you can’t configure a system change that will cut a bunch of error-prone manual processes, why not ask them to draw a chart that explains it? If a German payroll manager tells you payroll is too complex to be managed on anything but a single country basis, why not ask for bullet points outlining the top ten challenges, with data on frequency, volume and impact?

And wouldn’t it be better if instead of just asking questions about things we don’t understand conceptually or technically, we ask questions about things we understand but disagree with? Why does payroll have to grapple with retro calculations just because a line manager forgot to put a change in on time? Why is Comp & Ben policy agreed with no analysis of the downstream impact? The more you ask, the more you may find that it’s because no-one’s challenged it.

The short-term risk of asking lots of questions is that you can appear dumb, irritating, or both. But the long-term impact on your payroll organisation can be big. And ultimately, as you develop a reputation for asking ‘why’, you’ll end up in the best possible position – where no-one knows whether you’re acting dumb to challenge the status quo, or whether you’re actually completely clueless. 

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