During World War II, a Chief Petty Officer of the Royal Navy was called on by his Captain of the HMS Stork to explain why their ship sustained damage but, unlike other Royal Navy ships, did not blow up after a direct hit from an enemy submarine torpedo.
The Chief Petty Officer admitted he failed to follow the standing orders that the depth charges be armed with detonators. He continued to explain to his Captain that to avoid the risk of charges imploding during enemy fire, he and his crew were trained and ready to arm the charges with detonators within a matter of seconds. After all, large barrels full of high powered explosives are innocuous without installed detonators to set them off.
Upon learning this, the Captain knew if he reported back to the Royal Navy the reason the HMS Stork was saved, the Chief Petty Officer would have been court-martialed for disobeying a direct order. Grateful for the transparency and for the safety of the crew, the Captain shared with the Royal Navy that my grandfather, Chief Petty Officer William Crudge, was given direct orders not to arm the charges with detonators.
Imagine if the Captain of the HMS Stork had empowered his leaders with the true framework of accountability by inspiring with ‘the why’ — the purpose of the ship —while empowering its leaders to act in a way that fulfills the overall mission — to go after the enemy while not blowing us up in the process. My grandfather would have been empowered to make a life-saving decision without undermining the integrity of the mission or risking his career.
Let’s face it — there are some dumb policies and antiquated procedures out there. Granted, they may not be lethal enough to blow up your organization when faced with an attack, but they can impede accountability, engagement and the spirit of continuous improvement. When targets are missed and engagement is low, the 'solution' is sometimes more rules and extrinsic incentives. While this may help in the short-term, there is opportunity cost in not engaging and empowering the teams for the long-haul.
Mary Barra, Chief Executive of General Motors, explained to Quartz how she updated the company’s dress code as “dress appropriately,” and emphasized: “...you really need to make sure your managers are empowered — because if they cannot handle ‘dress appropriately,’ what other decisions can they handle?" Think about the rules in your organization. Are there any policies that would be better left in the hands of leaders to own and carry through? Any procedures that could be the tipping point in moving towards a culture of continuous improvement?
I find the trend of companies who have opted to throw out vacation policies a fascinating study. Research shows fewer vacation days are taken when employees self-police. I would place my bets on people holding themselves to higher standards than a dumb policy may spell out. I would also double down on modeling behavior and peer pressure as being a strong force in accountability and empowerment. Hello, high school! I haven’t missed you.
Think about rules in your organization begging to to be refreshed or needing to be escorted to the door.
Consider these signs you may benefit from a policy or procedure refresh:
- Yields poor results: Are there consistent issues that arise with how we deliver our products or services to the customer? Pull together a cross-functional team closest to the work or issue and work it through. Your team already has some ideas on how to improve the issues, but they are working within the confines of the rules. When presented with the issue at hand and providing clear, desired results, the team can provide a fresh approach and assumptions to go forth and test.
- Prevents living the Purpose: When the company’s purpose is not being lived by the leadership and their teams, there may be rules getting in the way. Is everyone clear how they fit within the company’s purpose? Are the goals the company is working toward aligned to the purpose? What is getting in the way?
- Competes with Core Values: Are there any rules that are redundant to the behaviors expected in your core values? Are the values not reflecting how we show up and engage with each other at work? When given examples of behaviors expected with each core value, your culture will self-police how to interact with each other more efficiently than any written rule. Talk to your team regularly on how each are living the core values.
- Expires their shelf life: Perhaps automation, culture, or customer expectations have made the policies outdated or even obsolete. Before your team furiously updates these, ask the question: “Is this really a critical policy or procedure?” Less is more to amplify clear accountability on the few that matter to the organization.
- Disengages the team: Are there any rules being thrown under the bus when things go wrong? “I would have gone to see the struggling customer but we are on travel restriction, and I didn’t have time to get the three approvals for it.” An accountability framework to live the company’s purpose and values and to reach the agreed upon results would drive the behavior to book the flight and “go the second mile” for the customer to reach the end goal.
Yes, there’s a time and a place for rules. However, leaders win all day with an empowered and engaged team. If the rules are at all getting in the way of that, it may be time shake things up.
To take this full circle, the learnings from the HMS Stork and my grandfather’s actions changed the Royal Navy’s policy going forward. What life-saving, rule-breaking moves can your team think up to drive accountability?
I would love to hear more accountability stories at my breakout session: The New Competitive Advantage: How Accountable Leaders Achieve 21% Better Results at our fabulous Breakthrough Conference in October!
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Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images
Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images