Why Policies For The ‘Clueless Few’ Can Ruin A Great Company Culture

Can I assume that you’ve heard about the recent case in Florida in which a woman was arrested for riding a manatee?

When I heard about this incident my first thought was: “What kind of idiot tries to ride a manatee? Shouldn’t this lady have known better?”

The answer, of course, is yes- reasonable people do not see animals drifting along a Florida waterway and thinks “All aboard!”

But the Florida Keys are positively blanketed in signs like the one above, and a law does in fact exist outlawing the behaviour in question.

I find it sad that the good people of Florida must legislate for the clueless few, but that seems to be the world that we live in. A world where our coffee cups bear dire warnings about the hot liquids within, and my curling iron has an enormous label advising me against putting it into my eyes.

Sadder still, this lunacy does not stop at the borders of our organisations- many of us have encountered organisations that create policies for the clueless few.

Policy Making for ‘The Clueless Few’

Not sure what I mean? I find dress codes to be a good litmus test. Does yours prohibit the wearing of tube tops (or jean cut-offs, or t-shirts bearing offensive language)? Awww, I bet that ruins the whole outfit you had planned for tomorrow, right? Of course not—because you and I are reasonable people who do not need to be told that wearing a tube top to work is a bad idea.

Yes, I know what some of you are thinking:

“But Jane, common sense is not so common. Someone might actually think that wearing a tube top is OK unless we have a policy that says it isn’t.”

That insidious thought is the first step along the path to policy making for the clueless few. Remember- unlike the state of Florida, we actually get to decide who calls our organisations home. We can choose not to hire people lacking common sense, making these policies unnecessary. OK, OK- I know that’s easier said than done. You can hire someone who seems like a reasonable person for weeks, months or even years, only to have them do something so out of bounds that you assume they’ve been replaced by an alien doppleganger. People are unpredictable like that.

But pre-emptively writing policies will not prevent this from ever happening, and it will not address these occasional lapses in judgment when they do inevitably occur, at least not in a way that supports a truly accountable workplace. There are consequences to this approach and the policy proliferation that results. And those consequences almost certainly outweigh any benefits organisations might think this approach offers.

Lowered Expectations

The first of these is that employees feel infantilized, and take this as a signal that the organisation does not really expect them to be personally accountable. Nothing says ‘lowered expectations’ like making that top-notch Software Developer brainiac you just hired sign something acknowledging that tube tops are off-side. We trust them to lead the development of our next product, but not to pick out a sensible outfit?

Opening a Can of Worms

The second consequence of policy making for the clueless few is that it inadvertently widens the scope of possible behaviours. That is, the vast majority of people will have a very good sense of what is acceptable office attire, but by bringing tube tops into the discussion (even while indicating that they’re not acceptable), an organisation is acknowledging that it’s within the realm of the possible that an employee might actually show up wearing a tube top. This sets the outer limit of what’s ‘acceptable’ waaaay out there, implying that everything that lies on the spectrum between a suit and a tube top is a grey area. By articulating the outlandishly prohibited, we tell people that anything not specifically mentioned in a policy might be OK.

Building your Robot Army 

And the third, and most serious, consequence of policy making for the clueless few is that it erodes the agency, authority, and good judgment that managers should be expected to exercise as part of their role. If an organisation’s policies spell out every conceivable situation, action and consequence, we leave no room or need for individual people managers to think for themselves. This shows them that we don’t trust their judgment, and it will eventually beget a kind of ‘learned helplessness’ in which they refer to the Policy Manual to make every decision. Prophecy fullfilled, they’ll be clueless without the guidance of policies. No one wants this- we need people in our organisations who can improvise in ambiguous situations, not robotpeople who are slaves to ‘the manual.’

Passive Aggressive Much?

Every organisation needs (and is required to have) some policies. But organisations that rely on policies written for the clueless few rather than working at the more difficult task of cultivating good judgment and employee relations skills amongst their managers allow a vicious cycle to begin.

An over-reliance on ‘the manual’ leaves managers and employees lacking the skills and comfort-level to engage in difficult conversations. Instead of addressing the occasional slip ups made by individual employees directly and professionally, organisations like this often resort to passive-aggressive tactics like e-mailing the dress code policy to every employee because one person showed up in shorts- and that sucks. Just say no to policy making for the clueless few!