Leading In A Broken System
Years ago one of my leadership team asked me why a certain attendance policy at our company was in place.
I explained to her what the rationale was, and her reply was “Well, that’s stupid. That needs to be changed.” Slightly taken aback, I asked her what she meant by that. She explained that the way the policy was written allowed the staff to abuse it. She said that if it was more stringent there would be less infractions. Our organization at the time had a poor track record of employee attendance issues, exacerbated by rules that employees easily worked around. In the two years I had been aboard, our attendance track was the best in the company and benchmarked with others in the industry; however most of the other departments had poor compliance in this area at best.
Nonetheless, there was a real issue here and my day supervisor was expressing her frustration with the process. This presented me with a wonderful teaching moment for her leadership career. I paused and quickly dove in.
“Caroline,” I explained, “You make a solid point, and in most respects you’re right. Our policy should be more stringent to tighten up the loopholes.” I explained the rationale behind the incumbent rules, and the reasons why the organization felt this was the best course of action when it was implemented.
“However, isn’t it our job as leaders to enforce these rules, no matter what they are?” She nodded in agreement. “And since I’ve come aboard, haven’t we worked with the team to set attendance expectations? Have you seen a difference in our department versus other departments?” Again, she agreed.
“While I agree the policy can be changed for the better, we do have to uphold the one already in place. Just because we may disagree with a rule does not give us the ability to give up because it doesn’t work that well, does it?” “No, it doesn’t,” Caroline answered.
I continued, “As leaders we need to set the example. Do you think the staff will comply with a rule if we don’t believe in it? If you and I tell our staff we think the policy is flawed, they won’t respect it either, will they?” “You’re right Paul, they won’t,” Caroline was getting the point, and I went on. “So the best way to have our people follow the rules is to support the rules. If we don’t, it all breaks down.”
“Policies don’t make people comply, but it’s the integrity of the leaders who uphold them and ensure everyone has a clear expectation of the work they do. The policy just backs us up. But we all have an obligation to the organization to bring up broken systems and policies in order to improve and be more fair while supporting the performance we set out to achieve. I’ve mentioned this in many of our leadership team meetings, Caroline, but I like your solution and will present it again with this idea.”
We summed our talk up with Caroline understanding the need to enforce the policy and to support it even though it was not the best system. She seemed more empowered to lead in these situations now, instead of the system leading her.
Don’t let broken systems break your ability to lead
Leaders must support their organization, but that doesn’t mean to leave a rule that works poorly alone. Changing, or better yet improving, a policy that enhances the fairness and integrity of the company is an essential part of our leadership responsibility. These four steps below can guide us in supporting and changing broken systems:
- Validate. Acknowledge the system and it’s shortcomings. Validate what people say and do. Do not denigrate the system, but instead show that there is room for improvement.
- Enforce. The leadership proverb is true “What gets measured gets done”. The best rule is only effective when upheld.
- Promote solutions. Find ways to resolve that work within the context of laws, culture, and fairness. Discuss with others, and help others see the scenarios that break down the incumbent rule and can help write a better one.
- Stay unified. A team divided on a rule will soon have a divisive team and cause more internal disconnect. Make sure your leadership are together in enforcing whatever policy is in place.
Systems are the necessary context in which an organization conducts itself. But it’s the people, including the leadership, that make or break a company faster than the systems themselves.
Great leaders overcome broken systems, and correct them. In spite of it all, they teach their people to respect what’s in place and build teams loyal to the cause in spite of any broken policies.