Most of us realise that it’s very difficult to thrive in extremely political environments, and fear of getting things wrong or fear of making a mistake will extinguish any sparks of creativity. Yet so many businesses create ‘fear driven’ experiences every day through a punitive approach to management. If human error and mistakes are singled out and punished the attention moves away from doing a great job and towards ‘not screwing up’. People become risk adverse and paranoid.
I have encountered a lot of people who, in business, think of process first, experience later, and pay no attention to the consequences of their communication. Then they throw a small fortune after ‘programmes’ and ‘initiatives’ to engage people, promote authentic behaviour and encourage innovative thinking – not realising they are attempting to fix a problem that they are causing.
I was in a large business unit in London and went to ‘the gents’. The walls of the loo were almost lined with A4 paper carrying a message that read something like:
“There has been GRAFFITI in this toilet. This is UNACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOUR and when we catch the culprit they will be INSTANTLY DISMISSED!” It was signed by the person who ran that business unit. I thought – I only came in for a wee and I’ve been told off!
My thought pattern is this: One person did graffiti, 300 people a day have to be told off and have the concept of INSTANT DISMISSAL brought into their awareness – probably more than once a day. Besides – what is that message supposed to achieve? The graffiti artist already knows their efforts are unwelcome – that’s why they do it in this context. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to enforce boundaries with no consideration for who will be reading it and the perceptions it creates about the working environment. There are so many more creative ways to eradicate this type of behaviour.
I recently discussed this with my extremely experienced friend, Richard Hall. He has been a CEO of several successful organisations and is a best-selling business author published in 40 countries. He offered the 2 great comments below:
1. “In the children’s charity I chaired we found quiet repair to stuff like graffiti and broken windows did the trick…fix it at once and shrug…as many times as it took to get the behaviour seem abnormal.”
(This would be my approach too – as well as making the graffiti out of place in the environment – if the behaviour does not get the desired response people will stop doing it pretty quickly. If you get angry, the graffiti worked and will continue)
2. “Gaffiti competitions are good – my favourite is: The penis mightier than the sword”
I know that rules and explicit processes can be important relating to some activities in big business – they ensure consistency and clarity of communication – but as we move further from the industrial production line model of organisational management and require people to think more creatively this kind of finger wagging and policing through low-grade fear will not serve us. There is a tension between making sure processes are followed, and creating an environment where people can thrive (and to thrive they have to be engaged in the activity, understand the intention and be liberated to act).