Are the organization’s policies achieving the desired ends? There are multiple ways to emphasize the lessons from the following parable, but in this instance, I would like to focus on emphasizing the need for flexibility in applying rules. A little empathy can go a long way toward avoiding “principle-agent” issues in the workplace and keeping everyone focused on growing a prosperous organization. The name of this story is “Find the Hat.”
A few generations back, it was common for men to wear a fedora with a suit. A paving equipment manufacturer required its salesmen to wear a suit, tie, and yes, fedora when they went on customer calls.
One particularly windy day, one of the salesmen was on an asphalt paving job site discussing the purchase of machinery with a potential customer when a gust of wind blew his hat off his head and into a patch of molten asphalt. When the salesman recovered the hat, it was completely ruined. That evening, when completing the day’s paperwork, he filed an expense report to recover the cost of the hat. Upon receipt of the expense report for the hat, the accounting clerk dutifully informed the salesman that costs for personal items were not reimbursable and the expense report was rejected.
The salesman thought there had to be an exception to that policy if a personal item was damaged in performance of activities on behalf of the company, so he wrote a lengthy explanation of the circumstances involving the destruction of the hat and resubmitted the expense report. This time the response was more severe. “Costs for personal items are not reimbursable. YOU ARE NEVER GETTING MONEY FOR THIS HAT!” The salesman shook his head and then filed a third expense report with a brief note at the bottom: “Find the hat.”
The moral of this story is not the encouragement of cheating on expense reports. The point is that we need to consider what the ends are that we are hoping to achieve with our policies and the enforcement of them. Are we working together in the interests of the company or are we using policy as a method to settle scores and keep others in their place?
This goes back to a post I’ve written earlier regarding a positive attitude toward colleagues. Should the clerk have ignored the rules and just processed the expense report? Probably not, but there could have been alternatives suggested to ameliorate the issue – being harsh obviously didn’t help.
This anecdote ties back to the idea of being positive instead of negative. We should look for ways to be supportive instead of looking for ways to say no. The culture in many companies pits one group against the other with the mistaken idea that competition will bring out the best outcomes. The moral is to demonstrate empathy and pull together. Don’t weaponize the rules to increase your own sense of power – doing so can backfire and lead to unforeseen adverse outcomes. The organization is much more successful when we pull together versus pushing against each other.