Use More Specific Solutions: Create Less Company Policies

Posted by Joseph Sherren on December 12, 2016

Have you ever witnessed a manager who failed to step up and address a one-time problem with a specific solution, but rather created a general “policy” to regulate all employee behavior?  This is not only indirect and unclear communication, but it does not resolve the problem and upsets everyone affected.

I had a recent experience working with a client where one of the participants at a training program felt that any food not eaten during a break was fair game. Once everyone left, the participant proceeded to fill up a sack with all the leftover bagels, muffins, and juices.

This left no refreshments available for another break, or for others who were visiting the facility that day. The matter needed to be addressed since this was a three-day program.

Initially, I was told to make a general announcement to all attendees that the refreshments were to be consumed only during breaks and on-site, and not to be taken off the premises.  My response was: “No, I will not do that.  Why would we admonish, or even implicate dozens of people because of one offender?”

It was then suggested that a policy should be created around the consumption of food at the sessions and published in the handout material participants receive upon arrival. I queried: “How many times in the past 10 years has this happened?”  No one could remember it ever happening.

Unfortunately, this is how many well-intentioned, but unskilled managers and business owners react when facing a one-time problem head on.  Let’s create a policy to deal with the situation, versus dealing with the offender directly.  Think about it:  If you were in the classroom and I share the new policy, wouldn’t you wonder what precipitated it?  Was it you or someone else?  This is an example of unclear and indirect communication.

Organizations today require clear and direct communication.  Otherwise, no one knows exactly what to do or what is expected.  An example of this would be if a person in a group had spilled something on his clothes:

  • Unclear and indirect would be to say to the group – “Someone here has a problem.”
  • Unclear and direct would be to say to the person – “You have a problem.”
  • Clear and indirect would be to say to the group – “Someone here spilled food on their jacket.”
  • Clear and direct would be to say to the individual – “You spilled something on your jacket.”

Communication which is clear and direct is most effective in all situations.  It will solve the problem immediately.  I suggested to the client that this is how we should handle the individual who removed the food. 

This was done privately and the situation was resolved.  Afterwards, food remained at the breaks and the class was none the wiser.  Harmony reigned vs. fear of breaking a policy.

Far too often, managers jump to creating policies to avoid dealing with matters directly and clearly.  Many of these policies just serve to upset the majority of employees who naturally follow good practices and could eventually inhibit good customer service.

At IBM, we called this, “Getting your brains in a box.” The more policies an organization has, the more it stifles employee creativity and inhibits a manager’s ability to think critically and develop solutions to specific problems.

My message for all managers and entrepreneurs: Do not respond to every anomaly that comes up by creating a rule or a policy.  Instead, deal with the offender and educate staff on appropriate behavior, general guidelines, and most of all – how to think.

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