I often get asked by clients, “How do I create policies that will support the Organizational Culture (OC) I am trying to develop and maintain?”

As with most things culture, the answer is simple, but not simplistic. Let me give you an example. Recently we had a client whose stated objective is to drive a culture of innovation and accountability. But they have an expense reporting policy that does anything but.

In this particular situation my client was hosting a conference for employees from several states. They worked diligently to book the meeting location using a national hotel chain, secured a block of rooms at a discounted price, ordered catering, etc. You know the drill. The meeting space was conveniently located in an area of town that was easily navigated to from the airport using either light rail or a hotel shuttle and there were plenty of restaurants and shopping within walking distance. Although the participants and speakers were provided this information, there was no stated policy requiring them to book accommodations at the host facility or forbidding them to rent a car.

As we began booking reservations, we realized that the accommodations at the host hotel were very expensive. Much higher than we were accustomed to so we began looking for what we considered more reasonable options. With little effort, we found a comparable hotel a mile or so away from the meeting location whose rate was much lower, offering considerable savings for the client. The only catch was, because of distance and safety, it would also require use of a rental car. However, after doing a few calculations, we quickly surmised that the combined cost of the hotel and the rental car were still cheaper for the client than booking at the host hotel and taking the “free shuttle”. So, we booked the alternate hotel and patted ourselves on the back for saving the client money – confident our innovation and accountability had created a win-win situation.

Ahhh, but it quickly became evident that saving money was not the true objective. When expense reports were finalized and sent to the client, they realized we had booked a rental car and summarily refused to honor reimbursement of that expense telling us they would not pay for a rental car in a location that provided a shuttle. They never considered that our accommodations were cost neutral at worst and at best actually saved them money! Their only focus was on some unwritten policy stating that no rental car could be used if a shuttle was available. You see, our client trusted us with their most valuable asset – their employees – but they didn’t trust us to make good business decisions with their money.

So, let’s consider the consequences of their OC . When employees aren’t informed of the intent of policies and are treated as though they aren’t capable of making good decisions using their own critical thinking skills, they stop engaging in innovative activities and being accountable for their decisions. In other words, the brain turns off and they begin going along to get along. In this case, there is no way we will ever try to save this client money again. After all, no good deed goes unpunished, right? Now that doesn’t mean we will go out of our way to cost them money, on the contrary – in the future we will do exactly as they recommend. No thinking, no innovation and no accountability – just following the policies blindly. Are your policies counter productive to your desired OC and restricting your ability to WIN?

As leaders, if you want to drive a positive OC that can be leveraged as a competitive advantage, in this case one of innovation and accountability, your policies not only have to be written to support that vision, they must also be clearly communicated, interpreted and implemented in a way that provides consistent application and reinforces employee engagement – the amount of discretionary effort an employee is willing to expend to go above and beyond. If your policies and their implementation cause your employees to disengage and shut down, you may have 100% compliance, but you lose the very thing you hired your employees for – to help you WIN!

Join the conversation –  we’d love to hear about the dumb policies that exist in your organization that create friction and disengagement – you know the ones that drive the complete opposite effect of what they were written to do. How is your company losing as a result of those policies or their administration?