I’m the middle of three brothers. One warm Texas evening when I was a kid, I came in from my daily adventure to find my two brothers squabbling. The three of us shared a room, so distancing myself from the conflict was futile. My dad came in to break things up and, because our finger-pointing routine was well-rehearsed, dad quickly determined that all of us should be punished. Nice. Guilty by association, I suppose.
As a parent, I understand the frustration. Sometimes my need for peace and quiet outweighs my sense of justice. It’s not fair, but it gets the job done. However, considering the long-term (and unintended) consequences, I would not give that parenting advice to my now-grown son or to a client.
Due diligence in our line of work sometimes involves a personnel policy audit. All too often we find a paternalistic narrative that seems to be written by a vindictive legal zealot. If we peel back the onion, we typically find one knucklehead perpetrator triggering a policy that ends a pretty good thing for everyone else. Ah, just like home …
As a manager, I understand the frustration. You can’t have unacceptable behavior run rampant, and anarchy seldom gets the job done. There are other priorities screaming for your time, and a sternly written policy seems to be the shortest distance between what just happened and it never happening again. But what are the long-term, unintended consequences?
Policy madness is an almost imperceptible drift. As organizations scale, complexities can cause people to veer from the company’s original mission. A policy is the most expedient cure. But it discourages conversation. Why should a manager talk to a direct report about the way to act when it’s all been written down? Is it not a manager’s job to enforce compliance to a set of predetermined rules?
So, how can you make sure your original intentions stay intact as you grow?
Talk to each other
If there’s a bone to pick, pick it. If there’s a situation to confront, confront it. And when you do, assume that you don’t have all the information and that the “perpetrator” probably has a good reason for their behavior. Even if they don’t, this approach is respectful and builds trust and courage in everyone else. People become less risk-averse because they know you’ll listen to their side.
Crowd-source the policy
As a general rule, people enjoy having a say in decisions that affect them. The practice of letting people determine the rules they live by has precedent and it can breed immediate buy-in. Ever play “Counter-Strike”? Valve is the company behind that game, and they crowd-sourced their employee handbook. Successive rounds of new hires update it regularly. Useful and effective.
Allowing the actions of one bad egg to “policy-punish” everyone else diminishes your leadership capital and destroys hard-won trust. Appropriately confronting behavior outside of expectations will open the door to a career-changing conversation, one way or the other. And it may just prevent an innocent bystander from restrictions brought on by two non-compliant siblings …