Why commitment goes beyond compliance

Last week at an interview with a media company, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was asked by the audience what his favourite movie was. Mnuchin’s response –  ‘you should all send your kids to ‘Lego Batman’’ – seemed light-hearted, but raised accusations of a breached ethics agreement since he was an executive producer of this movie.

In the busyness of business it’s easy to act without thinking and not consult the rule-book. Many ethical contraventions – even ones that cost their business tens of millions of pounds – are not the result malicious intent, but of not thinking through the consequences.

So how can companies get everybody to think before acting?

Commitment is much more powerful than compliance: the difference is doing the right thing because you want to, not because you have to.

It surprises us that we still hear companies asking for more rules in order to get more compliance.

Or as one client put it What do you mean ‘engagement’? Just tell them what they have to do and make them do it.

Ah, if only it were that simple.

But ethics is more complex. It’s rarely the clear-cut black and white issues that raise a challenge – it’s more navigating the grey areas. It’s both an individual and a collective responsibility. The employee’s personal view of ‘the right thing’ needs to be in synch with that of their company. And everybody has to work together, not separately, to uphold it.

But a focus on compliance alone results in a forest of policy, legislation and regulation. The team from a global financial institution that gave employees all their rules in one huge document, two inches thick of thou shalt not… summed up the challenge: We’re trying to list all the things that can go wrong. It’s bewildering for employees and an endless task for compliance.

They need to focus on a fewer big principles and enable people to use their judgement to make good decisions. How does this work?

Businesses can learn from a traffic experiment in the northern Dutch town of Drachten. After repeated accidents at a particular junction, traffic managers developed more rules, added bigger signs with bold instructions: surely people would comply? But it just got worse.

And then a traffic designer took a radical step: remove all the signs. Was he mad? Would chaos ensue?

No. The result was fewer accidents. Indeed, since the scheme was introduced in 2003, the number of serious road accidents has fallen from an average eight per year to barely one. And traffic jams have all but disappeared.

Why? Because drivers and pedestrians were less reliant on the signs and started thinking. Instead of looking at when the red light would change, drivers were looking at the road and the risks.

The shared concern to drive and walk safely together put the simple principles of the Highway Code into clear focus.

Committed employees want to do the same. It’s part of preserving a community rather than self-interest.

Provide the detail of policies behind the code to give clear accountability. Explain why it matters, so people can think beyond the rules. Encourage people to look at the implications of potential dilemmas, to practise decision-making.

Make the ethics helpline not just for reporting incidents but, as it says on the tin, for help: impartial confidential guidance. (if you have to blow the whistle it’s already too late to influence the decision.)

Commitment is a valuable asset, one that’s given freely and two-way: don’t take it for granted. Cynicism or resentment will undermine it.

Companies need to both encourage and reciprocate commitment in order to achieve compliance.

And to remember the protocols even when chatting about movies.


[First published in CorpComms magazine.]