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’!


About Janaki

As an individual, I love life, friends, books, music, movies, travel, meeting people. I believe that one is only as old as one feels, and that one can find at least one redeeming feature even in the person one dislikes intensely. As a professional, I have, after a 25+ year corporate stint in people management, taken a shot to placing an independent signature in my passion of guiding people and potential to performance and organization success View all posts by Janaki

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