Great Stories, Leadership

A Practically Perfect Policy

Most policy manuals are useless, and many are holding back results.

I’ve had several conversations and consulting sessions in the last couple months where organizational policies featured prominently. In the midst of cultural shifts in expectations and greater diversity of demographics and opinions, the desire to establish clarity often results in voluminous binders of procedures and practices that take days to read; let alone to write, review, and implement.

And a lot of it is garbage.

I don’t mean that politically. It’s not the specific content of the policies that concerns me. It’s the sense that we need to define and monitor so much of the behaviour of our teams.

We don’t.

In fact, if your organization feels like you need policies for just about every eventuality that may occur it is more than likely that you have an unhealthy culture where the push for authority and control has replaced any form of meaningful trust and communication. 

A long term successful leader I spent time with recently said: “We create policies when we want to avoid conversations”. It rings true.

If our people can’t make even basic decisions on their own we have the wrong people. Or, more likely, if we haven’t developed that ability in employees then we are the wrong leaders.

Of course there are regulatory and legal realities that require us to enact policies. Those are unavoidable, whether they are well designed or not. Some things need explicit instructions. The danger comes when we begin establishing rules when principles or values would suffice.

I almost cheered out loud when I heard on The Unpodcast that GM’s CEO Mary Barra, in the midst of ¬†bankruptcy and enormous pressure, focused on improving organizational culture in part by reducing the reliance on policies. She replaced a ten page workplace dress code with two words: Dress Appropriately.

I love it! If it can work in one of the largest corporations why can’t small and mid-sized organizations follow the example?

Healthy leaders build healthy cultures where control is minimized and conversations abound. Instead of detailed policies that feed autocratic supervision and motivate people to look for loopholes, they take a strong stand on values and establish principles that honour maturity and empower choice wherever possible. Trust becomes a real thing when we let people make the decisions they are capable of making.

You may be thinking, “Sure, but what happens when someone does something inappropriate and we don’t have a specific rule about it?”.

Probably something very similar to what would happen with a rule: you have a conversation with them. But in this case it is educational instead of disciplinary. Over time the few who don’t fit will either choose to leave or give every reason for termination. And the people you want to keep will appreciate being treated with respect. I’d bet they’ll start aspiring to higher standards instead of gravitating to the bare minimum.

Tell me: What’s one policy you could simplify to see how people will respond?

If you’re working on understanding, assessing, and improving your organizational culture we can help.