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Culture or Policy - You Decide

Oct 30

When it comes to the discipline of managing employees’ time in an organization (e.g., work hours, time-off, sick time) leaders have to choose between two general and different approaches.

One approach, the most common one, relies on policy.  It calls for leaders to codify and regulate how employees must work.  In these organizations, structure and rules provide the clarity that allows employees and managers to make decisions about when and how to work and how to manage their time.

The other approach relies on culture.  It calls for leaders to lay out general behavioral expectations and let employees make decisions for themselves about when and how to work.  In these organizations, values and stories provide needed clarity.

No organization is going to fall completely into one extreme or the other.  Every company needs some policies, and even the most rigid one will have some flexibility.  However, one of the two approaches will prevail and set the tone, and companies need to choose carefully.

Now, I certainly prefer the cultural approach, as it emphasizes trust and freedom, and assumes that a minority of employees will abuse that trust and freedom and require some level of structural discipline.  The policy approach emphasizes rules and, well, policies. It also assumes that a majority of employees cannot be trusted to responsibly exercise freedom.

Most people reading this probably agree with this reasoning, which makes it surprising that so many companies still take the policy approach.  Is it because leaders are cynical, small-minded people who like to control others and make their employees feel like indentured servants?  No.  I’m convinced that isn’t the case.

The real reason that so many companies still use policies and rules to manage when and where and how employees work is that they don’t have a culture at all.  There are no true, meaningful core values (not empty words on a t-shirt or a website) that guide the process of bringing new people into the organization, for managing them once they’re on board, and for making decisions in a consistent way.  Companies that haven’t adopted values must rely on policies.  Without those policies, chaos would reign.

So, every leader of an organization has a choice.  Either create a real, tangible culture and rely first and foremost on values to provide employees with the guidance and freedom they want and need.  Know that there will be messiness and occasional violations that you will have to address along the way, but that it’s worth it to create a culture of freedom and empowerment.  Or, if you choose not to have a clear culture, then definitely provide people with plenty of rules and policies to keep them from going off the rails.  Know that some employees will be frustrated by their lack of freedom and autonomy, but that it’s worth preventing chaos.

It’s your choice.