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Executive Suite: Truth or Consequences

Bill, one of my clients, was frustrated. He had stressed the critical import of certain rules and procedures to his people more often than presidential candidates make promises. They went consistently unheeded.

Oh sure, his people cared, were nice, and would respond one-to-one when approached. They weren't bad. They just were not tight enough on personnel issues (being on time, avoiding personal phone calls, etc.) and procedures instituted to reduce waste. Result? Laxness in work effort and expensive errors.

Bill was understanding. Nice. So were his managerial assistants. Too nice. They fit the Leo Durocher dictum, "Nice guys finish last."

Selective Compliance

Bill was typical of many owner/managers in businesses running from "Ma and Pa" shops to husky corporations. Rules without consequences. I saw it. The people knew what was expected. They also knew nothing would happen if they didn't adhere to those expectations. Hence, Bill got selective compliance from his people. Because they were decent people, they were never openly defiant; in fact they obeyed many of the directives. They simply ignored others they found inconvenient.

Many of his employees had been with him for a long time. Why not? They were a de facto law unto themselves. In any case, Bill was in a dilemma. On one hand, he didn't want to use any figurative brass knuckles, while on the other he was "sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Here are a few steps I recommend Bill (and others like him) need to follow to gain control of the situation.

1. Have Written Rules. You don't need many (God only has 10), but have some written rules with regard to basic employee conduct and performance expectations. If you have an employee handbook, fine. But that won't solve the problem. Many "Bills" have handbooks filled with unread, unenforced rules. They do not guarantee compliance.

Handbook or no, better to write the key rules out in memo form. Circulate the memo among the people, asking them to get back to you by a certain date (usually not more than two or three days hence) if they have any major problems with any of them, or want to suggest revisions. I have done this and can assure you there will be few if any responses. None of substance. After that, the rules become final.

2. Have Consequences. The memo should include consequences. That's right—punishments—to use an unpopular word. If you have a disciplinary system (and you’d better if you don't enjoy courtroom decor) simply indicate that people will be disciplined accordingly for failure to adhere.

If you anticipate any angst over specifics, have a meeting with your people and ask them what they feel the appropriate sanctions need to be.

3. Enforce The Rules. That's usually the toughest part for managers like Bill. If you are a "nice guy" (of either gender) you have to put concerns about hurt feelings out of your noggin. Enforcement needs to be non-personal. Not impersonal—non-personal.

The computer, in its non-personal style, is a good metaphor for your system. Think about and confront behavior, not character. Someone who is perpetually tardy need not be labeled as lazy, merely tardy. Be systematic. You have a system of rules or expectations and a system of consequences. Now systematically, rather than personally, implement it.

4. Have an Evaluation System. Only the smallest of companies can afford not to have a regular evaluation system. Without belaboring the details here, what is important is to have one. Like rules, however, it needs to be implemented non-personally. You are assessing performance, not character. Keeping that in mind, evaluate honestly. If you are a “Bill”, remember that to evaluate too favorably to spare an employee's feelings is worse than no evaluation at all. It instructs the employee to continue to perform unsatisfactorily.

5. Orient Your New Employees. The best way to get compliance from people is to make your expectations clear at the point of hire. Believe me, this is an often violated dictum. We hurry the worker into position with little in the way of training or specific expectations and then proceed to lose them to the culture.

So there you have it. If you are a “Bill” you can still be a nice guy. But be a systematic one. If you keep that in mind, you will soon find you won't have to worry so much about having to apply consequences. You will have compliance.

Dr. David Clearbaut is consultant to the graphic arts industry. Visit his website, for more FREE business insights or give him a call at 702-354-7000.