Rules: Resistance and Enforcement

“There is no new thing under the sun.”


Ask an executive what’s the toughest part about changing a safety policy, they’ll probably tell you it’s deciding exactly what the new policy should be. Ask a front-line leader they’ll tell you it’s getting people to actually follow the new policy. As to who’s right, there are now at least two top execs who’d vote with their supervisors. Both were trying to make change happen  – getting their followers to comply with the new COVID rules they’re operating their businesses under – and both met a wall of resistance.

The only thing new and different: they’re in the sports business.

The first leader runs a professional basketball team in New York City. Having just stayed in the city, you can’t get into a restaurant without and ID and proof of vaccination; the same thing goes for gyms. The city ordinance applies not just to us tourists, but also to professional basketball players. Frankly, I was more than happy to break out some ID and show my shot card to get a meal, but it seems a certain star player for one of the City’s teams has a huge problem doing that to play basketball.

His problem, not mine. He’s sitting at home, not collecting a paycheck, waiting for the whole thing to just blow over. He may be in for a long wait. As to why he’s in this predicament, he says it’s not like he’s against the vaccine. It’s just not for him. Plus, somebody promised him an exception.

The second case involves a coach who doesn’t want to follow the new rule either. He was the Head Coach at a big-time state college. His Governor decreed that all state employees will be vaccinated. Coach said he’d been promised an exception. When that didn’t materialize, he was fired by the Athletic Director. Back when he was on the payroll, Coach was the highest paid employee working for the state.

You might be having a hard time seeing how cases involving adults who get paid millions to play kid’s games have any connection with real life operations like the one where you live and lead. That I can understand. But try looking at it this way: as a leader, are there occasions when you have to communicate unpopular new safety policies? Convince reluctant followers to change? Administer consequences when they don’t?

There is no new thing under the sun. Say what you will, they do involve safety and health, and serve as perfect illustrations of the process and problems of making change happen.                                                                                    

Problem And Solution

First things first: when it’s a safety procedure that’s being changed, you can bet your last dollar it started with a problem. Something happened and it wasn’t good. That makes the procedure – new or revised – a solution to a problem. As to how good a solution any given policy change might be, that’s matter of opinion.

Three years ago, nobody in the world had ever heard of COVID. Well, maybe almost nobody. Today it’s a pandemic, widely viewed the as the world’s number one health hazard. Huge new problems are unusual, but hardly unprecedented. As to the solution, thankfully we now have a vaccine. It’s no guarantee, but fair to say being vaccinated represents a reasonably effective antidote.

But, like so many solutions to safety problems, there is a significant human performance component found in execution. If the shot isn’t taken, the solution doesn’t work. In that sense, the vaccine is not any different than installing seat belts in vehicles. Every vehicle has seat belts; not every passenger wears theirs.

On that kind of situation, a former CEO in my company once offered his opinion in one of those Town Hall sessions where nobody ever remembers a single thing the big boss says. Except on the occasion of saying something memorably stupid. Here is the exception that proves the rule: in response to the question, “Why haven’t you talked about safety?” the CEO explained, “I shouldn’t have to. Safety should be like breathing. It should be something everyone does, without even thinking about.”

A PhD and a genius in business, but sorely in need of remedial help in understanding the process of managing safety performance.  If safety even remotely resembled breathing, everyone would be safe. At least as long as they were still breathing. Yes, there are certain good behaviors that can become habit, like buckling the seatbelt. But forming a habit requires focused effort, demands attention, taking action by the practice of the habit, and some means of reinforcement, positive or negative. Only then does the behavior resemble breathing. If breathing required that amount of effort, we’d all be dead.

Now there are laws requiring passengers to buckle their seatbelts, and enforcement. No surprise that, for the vaccine, in some quarters, a similar approach is being taken, giving their leaders one more set of challenges to manage: resistance and compliance.

No new thing there, but without compliance, nothing will have changed.

Demystifying Resistance

Changing policy is a work process. It is a work process performed by management, with three simple steps: develop the proposed change, approve the change, and then execute. As tough as making the decision might be (I for one am quite happy not to be the one deciding whether to insist on vaccination as that’s as tough a call as I have ever seen) still, the most important work always takes place at the point of execution. That’s where that piece of paper called a policy is converted into different behavior, known as the change.

It’s also the point where resistance breaks out.

Standing in the back of the room, waiting for my turn to make a presentation to a good client, the speaker before me explained resistance: “Issues raised in response to a change in policy are simply resistance. Don’t put up with resistance.”  Another classic misunderstanding of an everyday phenomena, right up there with comparing safety to breathing. Roll out any new policy or procedure, resistance is the highly predictable reaction by those on whom the change is imposed.

Yes, resistance is a complete waste of time and energy: the change is going down no matter what the resistors might wish. Or say. But the leader still has to deal with the resistance in some way, even if it’s simply to act as if it’s being ignored. Somebody asks to be granted an exception to the new rule. Why? Because they just don’t want to change. Is that resistance? Absolutely. Does the request need to be answered? Absolutely. A simple no sufficed in both cases.

Then things got serious.

But there’s the much more important point to be made. Not every question and issue raised in response to a change in policy is about resistance. In practice many of the questions and issues raised are really about making the change happen. When followers do that, they are helping their leaders make the change. To the leader in the heat of the battle, it might not seem that way, usually because of the tone of voice used to raise them and the absence of good answers to the questions and issues raised.

When you’re the leader in the hot seat it’s hard to be objective. That’s where examining the experience of others proves so valuable: detachment allows you see things for what they really are.

Picture irate followers on being informed of the vaccination requirement raising these questions and issues:

  • How long do I have to get my shot?
  • Do I have to get the booster shot?
  • What kind of proof do you need from me?
  • What if I lost my shot card?
  • Why can’t we do this electronically using an app on my cell phone?
  • What about the contractors who do work in the building? Do they have to follow this rule?
  • What about the teachers in our training class off site?

Every single one deals with making the change happen. Aka, execution.  Yes, the leader would rather be hearing, “Hey this is a great change. It might just keep me healthy” and would rather not have to stand there and talk about what’s in the fine print. But those details are the essence of making a change happen; sooner or later, every one of those questions and issues will all come up. Better now than later.

Bottom line: the best initial response to each would be, “Thank you for bringing that up.”

Regarding Enforcement

If compliance weren’t required, it would be called a suggestion, instead of a policy. Given there is a problem for which the policy is the solution, it’s only right to expect compliance; after all, that is the change designed to address the hazard. In a perfect world everyone would happily change and comply, if for no other reason than no one wants to see anyone harmed by the hazard. Least of all themselves.

Of course, you manage in the real world. Understanding how the change process works in that real world does help simply things for you.

Paul Balmert
October 2021


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