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Why you shouldn’t be proud of a “compliant” workforce

You can win people’s hearts and minds and inspire commitment, not just compliance, by promoting originality, compassion, and autonomy when handling employee issues.

3 min read




In my experience, most leaders want to cultivate a work environment where employees feel like valued individuals — they’re just terrified of being sued. This may explain why HR departments are often empowered to focus solely on mitigating the risk of bad apples.

And employees can tell: A survey by Globoforce found that 47% of employees don’t believe their employers care about developing a “human” workplace.

In a wonderful onboarding program I was fortunate to participate in, new hires were asked about previous negative work experiences. One woman shared that when her grandmother (who had raised her) passed away, her employer wouldn’t allow her any bereavement time off. Company policy applied to “immediate family” only, and her grandmother didn’t meet that definition.

This very specific policy allowed no room for human judgment; the result was barbaric treatment of an employee. The best possible outcome of a rules-based environment is a culture where people are compliant — and nothing more.

But there’s another way. You can win people’s hearts and minds and inspire commitment, not just compliance, by promoting originality, compassion, and autonomy when handling employee issues.

There are three ways to do this:

1. Focus on the 95%.

In my experience, only 5% of employees put in minimal effort and take unethical shortcuts. The other 95% are responsible adults who take pride in their work. Rather than demoralize them with negative assumptions, create a workplace where they can do their best every day.

If a performance problem develops, assume the individual will want to solve it rather than fall back on an ineffective discipline policy. Enforcing the same policy for everyone drives away good people, hurts productivity, and damages your credibility as a leader.

2. Hire HR people who “get it.”

Let’s face it: Most HR leaders have been trained for risk mitigation. CEOs hire these people without much thought and brush it off as a cost of doing business. But it’s up to the CEO to avoid these people.

Look for progressive HR professionals who can help prepare your organization for change. If you are worried about hiring the wrong person or have trouble finding a good fit, consider taking advantage of the gig economy to contract with a progressive leader on a project basis.

3. Let policy assert your values.

If you aren’t trying to create a workplace where people think the leaders are waiting for them to slip up, don’t establish policies that give that impression. Develop a handbook that engages staff and feeds job satisfaction while communicating clear expectations.

Knight Transportation, for example, decided its lengthy driver handbook was largely unnecessary and cut it down from 160 pages to one laminated page that drivers keep in their trucks as a readily accessible reference. Recognizing that each of its drivers is entrusted with costly assets and valuable cargo, Knight’s leadership wanted the new one-page playbook to reflect that trusting adult relationship.

Most of your workers want to do well in their jobs and contribute to company success. Don’t let bureaucratic policies stop them from succeeding in those goals.


Sue Bingham, founder and principal of HPWP Consulting, has been at the forefront of the positive business movement for 30 years. She’s driven to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members.