Zero-tolerance – boon or bane?

Was IBM’s Thomas Watson Sr. right when he asserted that failure was the fastest way to succeed?

Innovators and scientists will assert that failure is vital to invention. Today, organizations that place innovation high on their strategy have built in an acceptance of failure with sound exit strategies. Failure-tolerant leaders thus try to create a culture of intelligent risk-taking. They do not see failure as the opposite of success. They are  analytical and non-judgmental. Above all, they are open to looking at lessons learnt in dissent and failure.

The question is – can organizations apply the same principles of innovative performance when they manage policies on behavior? Can they bring greater relevance to the so-called ‘zero-tolerance’ policies in organizations?

Don’t get me wrong – I am no softie on bad behavior. Instances of theft, fraud, violence, harassment (including sexual harassment) and other similar ones certainly warrant surgical corrective actions. Employees must feel safe and work in a fear-free environment in a company of repute. And maybe the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ aims to provide that assurance.

But here is a niggling thought. Beyond looking at it as a strong principle and belief, can more be done to not shut the doors to a real possibility – that organizations can learn something meaningful from what perpetrators of wrong behavior may want to say in their defense?

In short, can ‘zero-tolerance’ policies veer away from merely punishing errant employees to actually fix problems?

That brings us to an important point of how guidelines to implementing policies are drawn up. Yes, providing uniform applicability is vital. Yes, providing employees and managers the comfort of clear guidelines and consequences is important. But should they be made so comprehensive that there is no room to exercise discretionary judgement? If people relationship is so critical in an organization, why make the policy so cut-and-dried that there is no wiggle room to contextualize an employee’s behavior?

One of the important competencies for good managers is critical thinking for good judgment. This calls for less evaluation and more interpretation, less praise or penalizing, and better analysis. Do rigid directives of a ‘zero tolerance’ policy encourage such thinking?

Making decisions in a vacuum eliminates the closer look to remove assumptions that could result in wrong decisions. Even when employees evidently violate clear limits, researching the issue and giving them an opportunity to respond could provide valuable insights that need not take anything away from an organization’s firm principles.

No policy can spell out every type of situation that may arise – nor can there be a pat script for all difficult conversations or decisions. Policies should be written on the assumption that their employees intend and mean well – this will ensure higher adherence and performance.

In formulating policies, even the so-called ‘zero-tolerant’ ones, companies need to be cognizant of how they write them. They need to know the different nuances of understanding amongst employees that will impact how they will eventually put them into practice. This is all the more important where managers have greater latitude to make decisions. Managers should be trained to make optimal decisions from policy guidelines. The ideal way to tackle this is to strongly inculcate values and principles into the corporate culture, and ensure leaders are true role models, leading by example.

If done right, employees will recognize policies with pride and trust for what their organization believes in. It will create voluntary participation in a collaborative environment that fosters higher behavioral standards.

And then perhaps there may not be a need to resort to the extreme step of classifying certain policies as ‘zero tolerant’!


That slippery eel called decisiveness

“…But I must make decisions everyday that I hope are just. I don’t know right from wrong all the time. I wish I did. But what I can’t be is indecisive…”

I so agree with Frank Underwood, said the weary leader to me the other day. (You see, I am his inner compass that he often converses with).

Let me take half a minute to explain what the quote is all about. Frank Underwood, as the US President in the TV serial ‘House of Cards’, speaks these words. Yes, it is just a script. And yes, Underwood is Machiavellian to the core and not worthy of emulation.

And now, let us go back to my friend.

His burrowed forehead was etched with the burden of others’ expectations of him to be decisive. Of course, he knows that this burden came with his trophy of leadership. And he is trained to handle it too.

How easy is it to be just, ethical and decisive, I goaded him.

Not easy, duh – he was scathing. And not as simple as you think either. And here’s the scary part, he said. People are so unforgiving even if they perceive that we failed to vault over any of those three criteria.

That my friend, I said, is the crown of thorns you wear as a leader.

Tell me, he quizzed. What is it that people want of us as just and decisive leaders?

A mirror does not have all the answers. So I turned to the definitions in the Marine Corps Leadership book. Decisiveness, it summarizes, is the ability to weigh all facts, and act calmly and quickly to arrive at a sound decision. Justice, in their lexicon is the practice of being fair and consistent. Integrity means being honest and truthful in what you say or do.

Oh, please… he cringed. Can’t you see the how the power of perception is stacked against us? What seems calm to you may look like bristling to others. A sound decision to others may look like unhinged thinking to you. As for being consistent, once is good enough for some, while for others even ten can be ‘flashes in the pan’! Fair, honest, truthful – there are so many innovative interpretations!

Good points, I agreed. So why don’t we start with intent?

He warmed up to the idea. Let’s say I have the unquestionable intent of being just and ethical, he said. Depending on my personality and beliefs, my conviction gives me two broad ways to act.

Go on, I said.

I could want to achieve the most good for most people. I would then ask myself – what are the overall future effects of my action? Who are the people who will be impacted? My ethical decision will be to act for the best outcomes for most of the people.

Fair enough, I agreed.

Or I could be the leader to whom acting in the right manner is most important. What is the right thing to do, I will ask myself. What are the actions I never should take? This will be my lodestar for ethical decisiveness.

But intent is only half the story, isn’t it, I nudged. When you take decisions for others shouldn’t you smartly factor the impact of outcomes?

That’s where it gets muddled, he rued. I agreed with him.

Of course, there never will be a perfect decision. Even your most cynical critics will concede that. A good leader like you will be smart and intelligent to foresee all the implications of your decision – upside and downside. And I am sure you will also have plans to tackle the fallout in each case.

But what about the dangers of perception, he quizzed.

You cannot get away from that reality, I said. And integrity is your best shield here. Can you transparently maneuver the truth without manipulating it? Can you own your decision with conviction and without the arrogance of authority? Can you open some windows of hopeful change for those who see your decisions as closing doors for them? And can you live with the pain of not being liked by everyone – without hurt, rancor or derision?

His furrowed brows had straightened quite a bit as he set out on his next decision. I know he will be back again to look into me as his mirror. And I went back to my work of polishing it for clearer reflection.

Are you your organization’s ‘poet’?

“We’re going to miss this man, America. Whatever his flaws, he’s been more than our president. Time and again, he’s been our national poet.”

Frank Bruni said this of President Obama in a recent New York Times opinion piece.

It set me thinking.

When unease ripples through your markets, when anxiety overtakes your organization, when your employees are either confused or believe the organization is not going in the right direction, how do you, as a leader, act? How do you energize your team?

Do you take the role of an organization ‘poet’?

Huh, you may ask. But I mean business. Literally and figuratively.

The ‘poet’ leader has a fierce, tough-minded optimism that lifts the spirit of his people. She has deep convictions, is resilient, and battles change and adversity with creative ideas. He creates positive energy in negative environments. She believes in the future and motivates purposeful performance through well thought out optimism.

Before the second ‘huh?’ escapes your lips on the seemingly oxymoronic phrase ‘well thought out optimism’, hit the pause button. There is a simple but powerful flow to this philosophy that lends it its power.

It starts with a vision of success for your organization. It is a conviction that defines something special. It is a passion that inspires others to stand with you. It goes beyond being the best. It makes you want to be the only ones doing something unique, and doing it in the unique way you do.

This philosophy spells uniqueness not as ‘exclusive’ but as ’care’. Colleagues, customers, partners, vendors…they all matter. As does conduct – both as an organizational credo and as traits of its individual representatives. Care and conduct places meaning above efficiency to weave an emotional connect into the fabric of corporate culture.

The flow of this philosophy creatively looks to the future by rediscovering the past. The ‘poet’ acknowledges that the past is a treasure trove of history, which can create momentum and confidence if not looked at with regret. Through rediscovery he ignites innovation in reinventing the future, even as he is consistent in his priorities.

The ‘poet’ thus starts a movement to take on what is possible. He does not debate why it cannot. She changes her organization’s climate in testing times to enrich its culture. They are resilient, not just to bounce back but bounce forward. They develop a unique perspective of the future. In seeing opportunities that others do not, they display both initiative and humility to tap into the collective intelligence and genius in their organizations.

Fittingly, the New York Times article was titled ‘Freedom from Fear’. Amidst challenges, doubts and fears, the poet leader talks calmly, authentically and forcefully about ‘what we can do’. They personally renew themselves to re-energize their employees. That is why the classic line “I have a dream” was a poetic foundation to historic change. Imagine if it had been “I have a fear”!

Character – the value beyond excellence

A recent HBR article drew attention to a study that revealed organizations with highly principled leaders performed significant notches better. Specifically, their average return on assets was five times over companies whose leadership did not enjoy confidence in their character.

Now that we have dispensed with the need to prove the obvious, let us turn to the trait we call character. The study identified four moral principles—integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion—as the cornerstones of character. Interesting aren’t they? Especially as we use the first two more as jargonized parlance, and look down on the next two as the very antithesis of strength and aggression to achieve results for shareholders.

Character. We are in awe of it when we feel it, and when the leader radiates it. Yet precision eludes us as we grapple to define or describe it.

A bulb tellingly flashes in my mind. Is my character where my head and heart joins? Where my thoughts, feelings and actions seamlessly move in total harmony into my behavior? A behavior that I do not hide in my self, but bring to life through my relationships with others?

Each of us constantly makes signature decisions about how we interact with others. When our behavior enhances the well being of others, character springs to life. It is the discovery and sustained practice of promoting the most good for the most people.

I hear the impatience. Sounds great, but can we be realistic please?

So here goes the realist’s argument. In a bottom-line-driven economy what role can character possibly play in organizational success? Honesty, compassion, forgiveness – don’t tell me these can help deliver the top-line and bottom-line goods.

But the HBR survey did just that, didn’t it? It found a strong and robust relationship between strength of character and business performance.

So, back to the annoying idealist.

Meet goals, crank profits? Hmmm…not enough. Use both head and heart to orchestrate an inclusive high-performance? Now we are talking!

For starters, let us look at the leadership competencies we spout, and tweak them to infuse ‘character’.

“Pursuit of Excellence” – going above and beyond the ordinary to achieve goals, is that what they say?

Character adds transcendence as a vital dimension – to display courage, creativity and positivity to do what is right rather than pursuing the expedient.

“Drive” – the vigor that achieves stretch goals through execution excellence, say the pundits.

Character weaves positive humility into it – self-awareness, the ability to reflect and motivate, and gratitude to colleagueship that makes success possible.

“Accountability” – we look at this as a broad umbrella of ownership.

Character threads humanity through empathy and magnanimity to forge followership as its fundamental strength.

“Results-driven decisiveness” – we define it as the ability to make sound, timely and defensible decisions, especially in crises.

Character percolates integrity, temperance and justice – and lends authenticity to success in today’s profit-maximizing context of business.

 The good news is that it is not important to ascertain if we are born with character. We just need to develop it and keep honing it as we act and lead. As the HBR study reveals, it is neither a subjective construct nor a ‘soft’ and non-quantifiable strength in a world that looks for hard data.

As we move up the ladder, we sometimes become unaware of the repercussions of the outward display of our character. Self-awareness is the key, especially to the nuances that infuse character to critical leadership competencies. Importantly, we do not have to wait for a destination for such awareness to kick in. Frontline and middle-level managers will do well to focus on social intelligence and integrity; senior leaders will do better to be open to honest feedback. For character is as much a winning differentiator by its presence as it is a crippling blind spot by its absence.

Hello professional, what is your shelf life?

I am a successful executive, consistently exceeding performance expectations. I am an engaged employee, a team player and committed to my organization. May I sit back and smile in satisfaction?

Sure, smile you can, says a little voice within me. The voice of my friend, my good sense, I realize. But you need to turn around a little and read the expiry date of your usefulness to your organization.

Really? I wonder.

Hmmm… yes, the voice continues. This date is relative to how you grow yourself with respect to your organization’s growth or change. Without any reflection on your capabilities or potential, you may not have kept pace. Or you may have romped too ahead. In either case, one of you has outgrown the other.

How do I know when this happens, I ask. You can feel it in your gut, it says, provided you are honest to yourself. Provided you do not see it defensively or with a sense of entitlement.

I bristle. Will then my performance that has consistently exceeded expectations have no value? Ahem, interrupts my good sense, this is what I meant by not being defensive. If you are consistently so good, you may have reached your full potential. Think. Are you atrophying? Do you see room to grow? Can you make yourself room to fit you and engage you?

Wouldn’t that be the responsibility of the organization, I demand. I hear my good sense cough another ‘ahem’. See, now you are getting into an entitlement mode of thinking, it gently rebukes. Is it fair of you to expect your organization to offer you lifetime employment? Especially when it may not be able to, due to limitations beyond the blame game on either side? Your excellence is yours. So is your commitment. But do not let them come in the way of your own development, it counsels. Can you think differently? Can you reinvent yourself?

Good sense always makes, well, good sense. It shook me out of my focused but narrow thinking. Just like we are wary of food, however good, that has had an unusually long shelf life, so could my organization. It was up to me to keep my professional life fresh for the future.

However progressive it sounds, reinvention is daunting. But so can spending the rest of my professional life doing a job that is no longer fulfilling. It can frustrate if it is not fulfilling for myself, and it can rudely jolt if it is not so for my organization.

My mind latched on to what Wayne Gretzky the Canadian ice hockey player and coach said. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.”

So here is what I promised myself I would do.

First things first. No stupid self-denials. Change is imminent, let me get prepared for it.

Next, let me chalk my timelines clearly. How much longer do I want to tinker with the status quo for necessary comfort factors? Before I make the leap?

There comes my next sign. Tap both sides of your brain, it suggests. You will need both logical and innovative thinking to develop feasible new skills and turn existing skills into new assets.

Confidence, courage and commitment will be my best friends, I tell myself. Confidence to overcome doubt and leverage strengths. Courage to take a step back temporarily, if needed, to move forward. Commitment to hold myself accountable to the decisions I will make, without regret or frustration.

Yes, as a professional, I do have a shelf life. But I intend renewing myself to attract invitations from various shelves that interest me. And when I finally step off the shelves, it will be my call – with fulfillment and grace.

Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir…

Way back in 1971, the US State Department created its official Dissent Channel. It defines itself as ‘a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels and procedures…’

Responsible dissent. What is it?

Could it be the sustainable quality to stand up for what really matters, disagree and then come together again once the issue is resolved?

If so, how do we push ourselves into the right dissent? And what is the right balance in creating an environment that makes dissent a part of the workplace culture and not a standalone event?

The responsibility and accountability lies on both sides. Employees must learn how to question authority, and leaders should know how to listen to feedback and handle disagreements.

Let me wear the dissenter’s cap first. I disagree with my bosses on an issue – their stance bothers me, and the bother does not look like going away. I realize that speaking my mind to and disagreeing with power can be risky at best and dangerous at worst. Do I or not stick my head ‘above the parapet’?

The voice of reason in me should ask – how personally responsible am I for the thing I am concerned about? What personal level of attachment do I have to the issue? What is the power I have to do something about it?

I realize that the first tough questions are for me to answer, not my bosses! And so my mind makes a practical checklist of the costs and benefits. Job security, professional relationships, acknowledgement of merit and courage, respect…

Once I remove emotions through this checklist, the second set of questions emerges. Is this conflict that I am about to create a healthy one? Do I have a purpose that goes beyond my self-interest? Will it create value? Am I pointing my energy in a productive way in the right direction? Can I look at the road ahead, and not in the rearview mirror?

And what happens when I wear the cap of authority?

As a leader I must be open to constructive dissent. I must recognize and appreciate the courage and professionalism of the person who has stepped forward even if I do not agree with him. If I prevail I must ensure he retains his dignity and is rewarded for his risk taking.

Good leadership creates an open and two-way communication system that encourages speaking the truth to power centers. Only then will the quality of decisions improve – moving as it will from ‘What would my leader do?’ to ‘What do we think and do?’

When such a culture is created, dissent will be compelling and speak the language of what is possible. It will be a discipline and not a war. A discipline that pushes us, on either side, to find our ‘energy sweet spot’ that fires up more of our creative arsenal that makes us unique, innovative, and passionate. A discipline that, over a period of time, will build an auto immune system in our organizations to check and correct power abuses, errors and ambiguity.

I belong. With pride. With purpose.

How does he do it?

I found myself asking this question as I watched him address diverse audiences. He has children, adults, teachers, industrialists and even the apathetic Indian (at home and abroad) involved and roused when they listen to him – and long after too.

Much has been talked and written about Narendra Modi’s speeches and his persona – I am not going to add my tuppence bit to that. But one phenomenal effect that seems to surge in the people he addresses seems to be a good lesson for all organizational leaders.

The pride of belonging.

Excuse me, it says, I am not the rhetoric of happy talk. I am the pride centered on purpose. I beat in the heart of every organization, team and individual. I beg to be tapped from the static company mission statements and brought alive.

Please, it pleads, I am far more profound than being merely appreciated through rewards and recognition programs. I spring from wells deeper than that.

It certainly does.

It is the culmination of the effort, the brainpower and all of the waking hours that people plough into their organizations. They need it to have meaning. They need it to matter.

It is the spirit of the happy people who sling frozen fish at Seattle’s Pike Place Market at slim wages. They want this spirit to find common ground and be part of something bigger than itself. To have an additional pride of membership and connectedness to causes and results that matter.

Belonging in people recognizes the truth that the things they create and craft carry little but sure pieces of their skill, will, heart and soul. For the fire of pride to be lit, the relationship has to be reciprocal. People must feel that they too are transformed in some way by all that they build.

How does this shift the telescope of leadership?

For starters, a considerable U-turn from the Cartesian focus on ‘I think, therefore I am’ to the Ubuntu assertion of ‘I am because you are’. The softness of the latter statement is deceptive, very deceptive. No belief in collective strength can be soft. Any shared intellectual, emotional and psychological power packs a whopping punch!

Two, it also changes leadership’s listening frequency. They need to tune in to their followers’ hopes, expectations and needs with an ethic of service, principles, knowledge, capability and astute alacrity.

Three, their aggression needs to be wise – built on passion, compassion and agility. They need to sense, reflect, resonate and harmonize with their followership.

More than anything else, any leadership can evoke the pride of belonging only if the steward has the moral authority to gain trust and approbation from the people who want to be led. Only if their people respect and appreciate their personhood, not just their persona.

In translating the here and now to their vision of the future, in carrying their people along as they link the organization’s history and destiny, leaders need to make the unerring connection between hope and achievement of their followers. Otherwise the Ubuntu philosophy aptly describes what will happen. ‘Until lions have their own historians, all stories about hunting will glorify the hunter’