The Cowardice of “My Hands are Tied”

On December 23rd of last year, a young man attempted to make a withdrawal from his bank, hoping the $1000 due in his account had been deposited. The clerk he spoke to told him that she could see the money had been credited. Unfortunately, it would not be available until the next day. On the morning of the 24th, he checked his account and the funds were still not available.

Panicked, he called the bank and happened to get the same clerk. He told her he was just trying to get home for Christmas and needed $20 because his car had run out of gas and he was marooned. When she asked, she discovered the young man was about two miles from the bank. Taking pity on him, she asked her manager if she could drive over and give him $20 of her own money. After all, it was Christmas Eve. The manager gave her permission and the clerk did so.

We’d all like to think this story a nice reminder that there is still goodwill in the world. Unfortunately, that’s not how it ends. Several days after Christmas, both the clerk and her manager were fired because the clerk had had “unauthorized contact with a customer.” (I have not revealed the identity of the bank, but you can find the incident online.)

Some may argue that the person terminating these two employees did so because his or her “hands were tied” by bank policy. I would argue that was simply not true. Seth Godin once observed that when people don’t act in the workplace, it’s not out of a fear of failure, but out of a fear of blame. I suspect the administrator making this decision acted out of fear of blame. After all, sometime down the road this incident might have been examined by someone for some reason and the administrator might have been fired.

So, what message does this send to employees and customers? For the employees – “Generosity, goodwill and going out of your way for customers can get you fired.” Sure, there is a larger context to the situation in question. But most people don’t think that deep. For the customers – “Geez, the bank is always saying they care. But then they do something like this to employees who were just trying to help!” (Right now, the bank’s marketing department is thankful this story has been buried in the 24-hour news cycle.)

Every decision of significance we make in the workplace requires both judgment and courage. The more we promulgate policies to cover every possible instance and liability, the more our people will act out of caution and even cowardice rather than courage and a sense of goodwill. I have lamented more than once in this blog how rules have overtaken reason in our daily adjudication of society. As a result, much of our day-to-day decision making has become mired in caution and even fear. This incident over Christmas is a perfect example. While some may argue this incident is an anomaly, the more we rely on rules rather than reason, the more we’ll hear about anomalies like this.

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.

People Stay When They Understand the Role They Play

As part of my research in preparing to work with an employer, I will sometimes walk up to random employees and ask, “How does this place make money?” Most times, I get a mixture of confusion or some general statement like, “We sell widgets.” When I ask how much the company makes, most will say, “A lot!” The truth is they really have no idea. In a survey of supermarket employees years ago, for example, most estimated their store’s profit margin around 50%. Historically, the industry average is about 1%.

The fact is most people have never been taught how the business model for a firm enables it to turn a profit. To put it crassly, they know they show up to work and a paycheck arrives periodically in return. Wouldn’t it be helpful if they had a more informed understanding of how their employer operated? You bet!

There are two major reasons for teaching those who work for you more about the firm’s process for making money.

  1. It improves retention. The more a person understands about how they fit into the larger picture, the more likely they will feel a sense of belonging. They will relate more to the mission. They will feel like they’re apart of something larger. They will also develop more of an understanding about costs.
  2. It improves decision making. Knowledge is power and knowledge encourages reason. When a person understands the larger context of the problem they’re solving, they are more likely to think creatively, rather than simply following the rules. If you share your intent and overall goals, everyone will feel more empowered to take care of the day-to-day decisions without checking in on every detail.

So, how do you teach this business model? It does not have to be complicated. If fact, it would be better if you provided a simple illustration. The more employees can relate to the illustration, the more they will become invested in what you have to say. You might even create a short video so newcomers can be taught these insights as well.

Is it okay share some numbers? Absolutely! It’s not necessary to share proprietary data. Just a sample transaction or project will do. If you sell a tangible product, take your people through the process of revenue and expense. Some will be quite surprised that you’re not making a ton of money on each sale. If you sell a service, explain the estimating process, the cost of materials, overhead, cost of expertise, and everything else involved. Elapsed time to do this? No more than 15 minutes. Make it quick and clear. Those who are interested in more detail can ask you later.

So here’s your assignment – Regardless of where you are in the organization, make a point of providing your people with a basic overview of how the “the place makes money.” You will be rewarded in an improvement in both retention and decision making.

Just because you can measure something . . .

One of the blessings of digital technology is the access it provides to so much information. But that’s also one of its curses. As we all battle daily decision fatigue, the exponential growth of accessible data has begun to overwhelm us.

A colleague of mine serves as dean of education for a university. Part of her job is responding to the myriad reports mandated by various federal and state accrediting agencies. Over the past ten years, she has watched the data demanded by these organizations explode in volume. Sadly, much of this information is never reviewed once submitted. She knows this because of conversations she’s had with regulators who give her blank stare when she asks about certain data they’ve requested. One even said, “I didn’t know we asked that.”

Like many people, I fly regularly. At the end of every flight, I receive an email survey asking me to review the flight. Two hundred flights – two hundred surveys. I’ve begun to delete them all. Everyone endures the endless website pop-ups asking us to review items we’ve purchased or services provided. With few exceptions, the data is meaningless because no one completes them unless something went wrong. If we want to make an informed decision about anything, we now have to sort through reams of statistics, reviews and mostly meaningless information on a quest to find the half-dozen relevant insights.

But enough ranting about the problem. What’s the solution? There are two – If you are dealing with this headache, install a pop-up blocker on your computer. Look for patterns of where the meaningless surveys come from and unsubscribe or block their emails. Take a minute to think about the best description for what you need before searching on-line. Then type in specific keyword phrases. Use quotations around specific descriptions to limit suggested links. Have a second e-mail address you can give when a site demands one for access to a free report. To some, this may sound like common sense. But how proactive are you in employing these strategies?

Now, if you are creating this headache by asking for information simply because you think it might be helpful at some point for some reason. STOP IT! All you’re doing is irritating your customers, clients or constituents. Just because you can measure something, doesn’t mean you should.

Don’t Take Stats at Face Value

I was listening to Colorado Public Radio the other day. In a story about the challenges facing today’s high school students, the host said, “Twenty percent of Denver Public School students deal with some sort of mental illness.”

My first thought was “Wow! One in five students. That’s terrible!” But being part social researcher, my mind then went to: “Says who? How large was the sample? How are they defining mental illness? Was this a study based on student self-reporting or observation of student behavior? This is a story about high school students. How much of the sample was elementary and middle school students? What hypothesis did the researchers begin with? Who conducted the study? How qualified were the researchers? Might there be research bias because of who paid for the study?” and on and on.

Now, before you accuse me of being anal about all this, remember that the results of this study, and others like it, are using taxpayer dollars to fund programs related to this issue. Likewise, we use statistics to persuade others to make all sorts of decisions every day – “Four out of five doctors prefer . . . Nine out of ten customers recommend . . . Raising the sales tax by one tenth of one percent will lift 270,000 children out of poverty.

Does all this sound familiar? We tend to play fast and loose with statistics of all kinds and that can get us in real trouble. Chances are, you do it yourself. There is a natural human desire to be the authority in the room and quoting statistics helps us fulfill that role. But how many times do any of us ask about the veracity of the statistics we hear? Even if they are well researched, are they appropriate for the particular argument? A statistic that tugs at my heartstrings will not help me make a rational decision. Yet that is a common tactic for many attempting to raise money or pass legislation.

Surprisingly, very few scientific or social studies are replicated by others to check their veracity. As a result, we are left to trust that those conducting the research have collected accurate data, employed the correct analysis, and reported their findings without bias. Sadly, we are seeing more and more evidence that research is being conducted with a particular outcome in mind. The discredited blood sampling research conducted by Theranos Corporation comes to mind. Or perhaps the “hockey stick” controversy that resulted from manipulated climate change data. Additionally, the media, political parties, activists, corporations and others commission research that feeds a particular agenda. The result is that more and more of us take quoted statistics with a grain of salt because we’ve seen evidence of manipulation in the past.

Statistics, used with appropriate context and clarity can be extremely powerful in helping us make informed decisions. But without proper effort to verify their accuracy, we can be easily misled intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes we want to believe something so much, we look for evidence (statistics) that support our desired outcome. That’s a form of confirmation bias.

When we rely on the research and reporting of others to make significant decisions, we should kick our “crap detectors” into high gear whenever statistics come into play. We all have a responsibility to look at quoted statistics with a skeptical eye, whether we’re news reporters, politicians, corporate leaders or citizens in the voting booth. After all, our outcomes, large and small, depend upon it.