Does Your Workplace Suffer from Brittle Decisions Making?

Not long ago, I went to return a tool I hadn’t used to the hardware store from which I had purchased it. Unfortunately, I could not locate the receipt. “I’m sorry,” the clerk said, but unless you have the receipt, I can’t issue the refund.”

“It’s unopened and it’s the store brand,” I responded.

“Yes,” he replied, “But you could have purchased it from another store that’s not part of our company. Then we’d have no way of recovering our money.”

“So, you don’t trust that I bought it here,” I said, testing the young man’s resolve.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” he responded.” We just have a very strict policy about returns.”

Now, in truth, two things had probably happened prior to this encounter: 1) Other people had returned items they had not purchased at this store and 2) Someone had hammered into this clerk NEVER to accept a return without a receipt as a result.

Concluding that I was not going to get any further with this individual, I asked to see the manager. At first, the manager started with same line about not having a receipt. But then he realized that what he was saying seemed a little extreme. After all, it was a $10 tool. Did he really want to chase me away as a customer over something this small? After a couple of seconds, he apologized for the inconvenience and issued the refund.

As I left the store, I thought, “This is an example of brittle decision making.” What is brittle decision making? It’s becoming so focused on the policies dictating how to handle every situation, that there is no room for reason. Chances are, you’ve been through an experience like the one I described. Most of us, like the store clerk, have learned to take rules at face value, regardless of whether they apply in a particular situation. As a result, we get trapped in the dilemma of whether or not to “break a rule” when the best resolution seems to fall outside of what is allowed.

Over the past generation, we have become more of a society of rules than reason. We’ve seen it in our legislation, our laws and our enforcement of those laws. We’ve also seen in business.  What large corporation does not have policy manuals that run thousands of pages? This focus on rule thwarts the impetus of those with responsibility for making decisions. Even if I am told to use my judgment, I may very well hesitate simply because I don’t want to get in trouble. This is especially true if I have been corrected in the past over what seems to be a nonsensical policy.

Those who have matured in their thinking, such as the people reading this post, have developed the confidence to “defy” the rules occasionally simply because they recognize that the policy forbidding a particular decision doesn’t really apply. But what about those on the front line, who lack the background and confidence to throw caution to the wind and act in a way that seems reasonable?

One on hand, many of us complain that people don’t think for themselves. On the other hand, we institute a new rule every time a mistake is made or something doesn’t go exactly as planned. Ironically, we then deal with the law of unintended consequences, where every exception to the new rule seems to appear the minute the new rule has been promulgated.

So, what to do? First, resist the urge to make rules for every conceivable situation. Second, tell the people who report to you that they should use their best judgment and that you will support them when honest mistakes are made. Third, when errors in judgment occur, process what happened and ask “what can be learned.” But don’t instantly institute a rule to prevent it from ever happening again. Bottom line, trust your people to think and compel them to do so. Over time, the quality of daily decision making will improve along with productivity, customer relations, and overall outcomes.

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