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If Policies Worked, Management Would Be a Lot Easier

By Randy Hall

As managers of a team or leaders of a business, we often think of policies and procedures as a way to change behavior, clarify expectations or cause a change.  We sometimes feel like if we simply change the rules, then people will follow the new ones and therefore by writing a new policy or procedure, we can reach the outcome of people working differently in our business.

It just doesn’t work that way most of the time.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have guidelines for how we work at our best, but often policies that we write are built much more around what we should not do at work. 

Telling people what not to do causes us to build a culture that is built on two foundations.

Don’t be at your worst and we will punish a certain set of things.

This is, unfortunately, a race to the bottom of what’s possible for a business or a team.  We spend time trying to make sure people don’t do the wrong things, instead of spending time helping them do the right things.

It makes sense why we do this, someone did a wrong thing, it cost us money or time, or caused me as a manager frustration and so I need to put a rule in place so that no one does that any more.  Unfortunately it assumes two things.  The person who did it would have done something differently if they only knew it was wrong, and that by making a rule, everyone will stop doing it wrong.  There’s not much evidence at all that either of these two things are true in businesses or teams.

Let’s look at the first one, if they knew it was wrong, they would have just done the more correct thing.  What if their mistake was due to lack of planning or being in a rush, or failure to pay attention to detail, or forgetting they were supposed to do it, or having a bad day, or having incorrect information from someone else on the team?  If this process worked, we could simply write rules for all of those things.  Our policies would be no bad days, or no lack of attention to detail, or no failure to communicate thoroughly and effectively.  Heck, we could just write policies that say you must not have a bad attitude or show up at anything but your best.

Which brings us to the second reason policies can be a poor tool sometimes. And that is the belief that because we made a rule, people will be different.

Most people don’t show up to do the wrong thing everyday, despite how it might feel some days. Most people are doing their best given the habits they have, the thoughts they have, the intentions they have, and the clarity they have.  If we want to change behavior on our team, we have to be working on habits, thoughts, intentions, and clarity more than new rules about what not to do.

The truth is that people move toward success when they have habits, intentions, thoughts, and clarity that align with that definition of success.  We are much more likely to sustainably change behavior if we are helping people become their best, not trying to keep them from doing their worst.  And conversations, discussions and collaboration help people find an aligned version of what their collective best looks like so that they can move toward it.

Having some rules about how we work is completely okay.  Consistently addressing mistakes or poor performance with policies intended to make it better is probably using a hammer to chop wood. It’s the wrong tool and while it might make a little bit of impact, it’s often not the best choice.

Help your team and your business figure out what your best looks like.  That way they get to compare their work with excellence, rather than trying to stay out of trouble.  We get better results when we lead people toward their best instead of managing them away from their worst.

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