Do the Right Thing… Or Else!

Aug 31, 2010 2 Comments by

Companies like Bekah's deal with compliance every day. Be careful when using it as a motivation for change.

This is Bekah. She cuts my hair.  Considering what she has to work with each time I come in, I’d say she’s very good at her job.  She’s a professional who’s been trained in all the latest techniques, styles, equipment, etc…  She’s also expected to stay up to speed on regulatory compliance for her industry.

Rules, Rules & More Rules: You might not believe the regulatory hoops that salons and barber shops are required to jump through.  States, counties and cities  enforce regulations designed to protect consumers from negative experiences that range from physical injury to the risk of infection and even consumer fraud.  These are all good things as long as they are reasonable and not overbearing…  Compliance oversight like this is mirrored in just about every line of business.

Compliance as a Motivator for Change: Change Leaders often use compliance – or the fear of penalties associated with non-compliance – as a justification for implementing a given change.  This can be a great motivator since its typically easy to understand and hard to argue with – but it also has a downside that I will get into below.

Meanwhile Back in the Chair: While I got my hair cut last week, the stylists around me shared nervous rumors about state inspectors making the rounds of local establishments levying fines and writing citations.  With each story, the inspectors became more clever, the regulations more restrictive and the penalties more severe.

This magical blue juice has been cleaning combs and sanitizing scissors since it was invented by Maurice King back in 1947.

Here’s an example: That stuff in the jar is called Barbicide.  It may look familiar to you.  It’s supposed to kill germs and reduce the risk of passing disease and infection.  It’s actually an EPA-approved hospital disinfectant. According to urban legend the inventor hated barbers – so he chose a name that means “to murder someone who cuts hair“.  Go figure.

As Bekah clipped and cliqued, the stylists debated the boundaries of a Florida state requirement that hair cutters soak all combs and scissors in Barbacide.  Was it enough to simply dip each tool in the blue goo before each use?  The most fascinating part of the conversation came when Bekah stopped right in the middle of cutting my hair to grab a handful of combs from her drawer.  She tried to squeeze them all into her overflowing jar of the magical blue fluid until it left a pleasant smelling, disinfected mess all over her work station and the floor.

The Point? For Change Leaders, the story is a powerful demonstration of compliance as a motivator. Employees will often drop everything to follow enforced rules – whether the threat of oversight is real or imagined – whether the penalties are immediate or random. 

OBTW: Things they drop might also include your big change. So if you plan to use “compliance” as a principle motivator for your change, consider the upsides and risks:

Upside: It’s Easy.

  1. Compliance can be a strong motivator for change – it’s high on the priority list  for most organizations since few can afford to be shut down or fined for breaking the law. (…not to mention dealing with negative publicity)
  2. People want to follow rules – especially if the rules are consistent.
  3. Compliance plays into people’s desire to “do the right thing”.
  4. You rarely need to repeat the expectation of compliance – especially if the rules are written.
  5. It’s relatively easy to enforce external mandates while shouldering limited responsibility as a leader for the hassle they introduce.
  6. That first person might jump... but don't expect everyone to blindly follow just because the policy manual says so...

    Compliance usually requires less interpretation and judgment to apply than actual business goals or logic-driven motivations like process improvement or ROI.

The Downside: It Can Make You Lazy.

Left unchecked, compliance as a motivator can be overused. (I have seen this happen a lot in Public Sector groups… but that’s another post) Taken to an extreme, the overuse of this motivator distorts an organization’s true priorities, boxes in creativity and limits options unnecessarily.  Also:

  1. It stifles innovation by decreasing the likelihood that employees will question “why are we doing it THIS way”?
  2. Measuring compliance itself impacts the process.  People tend to follow the rules if they suspect they’ll be monitored.
  3. It opens the door to over-use of compliance as a motivator on future initiatives.

Questions for thought:

  1. Have you seen compliance misused as a motivator for change?
  2. What industries or groups are more susceptible to this overuse?
  3. When is it appropriate to use compliance as a motivator for change?

Post your comments below – we’d love to hear your stories!


Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!

2 Responses to “Do the Right Thing… Or Else!”

  1. Steve says:

    I am amazed at how much regulation there is on businesses! Some of it seems to be just for the sake of collecting government revenue. How can companies possibly use compliance with this kind of oversight as a positive motivator?

  2. Joe says:

    Shouldn’t compliance (especially of the legal variety) be a part of every initiative?

    In my industry, we’ve gone through a couple changes in the last few years regarding how we record and keep track of refused products. The products are rarely tracked electronically, and can simply “disappear” if the proper steps aren’t taken.

    An employee might not know what to do with these refused products, thus leaving a large gap in the amount of resources we have, and the amount of resources we should have.

    This is one example of a change initiative solely powered by our need to comply with corporate standards. The folks in Deerfield, Illinois probably aren’t too thrilled when one of their franchises requires more resources than their revenue would indicate.

    This bit of change, however, is likely to be different from those in the public sector. While my company provides a product, something tangible and concrete, you offer a service. I’d be interested to hear more about how reducing the priority on compliance can increase the chances of success in a change initiative. Anyone?

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