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Greetings dear friends & welcome to my world again this week. It took a global pandemic to help me see something which has been going on for years: the slow & steady clarification of responsibility. This pattern really became evident as I was introduced to the “back to work” plan of a local company.

The leadership team understands times have changed & they need to embrace new workplace practices when it is safe to return to work. They are a thoughtful group, & it shows in the amount of time & effort they have put into learning about best practices for maintaining workplace safety amidst the corona virus outbreak. They really want their employees to be safe & feel safe.

After some time researching & crafting a well-thought-out plan, they formatted all their ideas into a memo for public consumption & launched their program, satisfied they had done enough.

“I wonder how long it will be before it takes hold in the organization?” mused one leader as they reflected on their efforts. “No need to wonder!” another responded. “We have a lot of examples of essential businesses who have already gone through this.”

Maybe you are at the point of launching your own back-to-work plan, or maybe you know someone who is. You may be worried your plan is fated to low compliance. When it is turned into a formal position document & posted in a public place, virtual or physical, with the expectation the “memo” will prompt employees & customers to follow through on the plan. One retail industry leader summed it up this way during a recent interview: “It should not be the role of a retail employee to enforce the [rules]. Stores should rely on signs & PA announcements to inform the public of the rules.  ”1 

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting leaders who do this are insensitive or uncaring. Many well-intentioned, thoughtful leaders memo-fy the responsibility for plans in an effort to make employees’ lives easier. But in the end, those employees are the ones who suffer most.

It is tempting for leaders to believe, if they elevate the understanding of an issue to people, behaviour change will follow inevitably. In reality, until you teach your people at all levels to take responsibility for the new plan, it is doomed to wane while everyone involved whines about it.

Wise leaders take a different track. While most leaders are gearing down once they have memo-fied their plan, the best leaders are gearing up. They realize their people face an over-abundance of triggers which will initiate a series of auto-pilot behaviours ~ which, by the way, usually run contrary to the new behaviours they need to adopt. For example, people often leave home without a mask because nothing reminded them to wear a mask. So, by the time they are reminded, at the store, it is too late to comply with expected behaviour.

Good leaders understand the memo is not enough to change behaviour, & presuming it is leaves employees stuck in an extremely tough position. Employees then feel unprepared to deal with violations, because they ARE unprepared. The memo did not work. Not even a second or third reading made it more effective.

Here are some things effective leaders do to help employees take responsibility for a plan, so the plan does not slowly succumb to the process being placed in the bottom draw.  [1]

It starts at the door. Think of your workplace as a unique cultural area. Regardless of what is happening outside of it, focus on what happens inside. Identify the existing triggers of counter-productive behaviours (for example, meeting rooms inviting close congregation) & add new triggers making it easy for people to adopt the new behaviours (spaced desks, for example). Design the environment so it is easy to remember & enact the new behaviours.

It continues with your people. Have people practice the new behaviours. As McDonalds prepared to re-open, I imagine they designed practice scenarios to help employees take responsibility for themselves & others. They not only practice safe health routines; they also practice what to do when someone else deviates from those routines. And since they expect most of those deviations to come from customers, they would have developed specific scripts related to customer situations. They understand it takes people at all levels holding one another accountable to breathe life into any initiative.

It ends with you. Upper management might decide to roll a plan out, but it is how leaders promote & support the plan which determines whether people will do their part to make it reality. Your people are looking for evidence of your support. It needs to be unmistakably obvious. It is not enough to voice your support; you have to back this up with actions. Actions like publicly praising those who confront you in a moment you were not adhering to agreed-upon behaviours.  

Only when you take the responsibility out of the memo & enable your people to take responsibility at all levels will you see real change happen.

I hope my comments each week are helpful dear readers; & again, provide just an opinion, from my world. Thank you for taking the time to be with me, I hope my journey may encourage you also. This is Kenn Butler in Paradise, Nelson. With my best wishes, I look forward to connecting with you again soon.

[1]  “Leaving Employees to Enforce Social Distancing.” Marketplace. Accessed June 8, 2020.

Kenn Butler
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