I’m sitting at a brunch table in Reno with an author, a doctor and a candlemaker. They’re filthy, sunburned and covered in grey alkaline dust from spending three weeks in the open desert. They just built a pop-up city complete with safety systems, sanitation and medical care, and then burned it all to the ground, leaving no trace. You might be inclined to ask, “Why?” But as someone who studies organizations for a living, my instinct is to ask, “How?”
While this ephemeral town, Black Rock City, isn’t a company per se; it is a group of people coming together to achieve a shared vision, so the dynamics of organizational behavior definitely apply. It’s an interesting model to observe when studying how to bring people together to achieve remarkable things. In short, the creation and destruction of this temporary city is possible due to decentralized management and a community of people who live and breathe a short list of guiding principles.
In contrast, a well-established escrow company in Southern California has identified processes and policies for almost all situations — including ordering a mousepad.
In this company, mousepads in the office had wrist support and were designated as “ergonomic items.” Per the company policy: “Requests for ergonomic products must be routed through a supervisor, who will then submit to human resources. Cases will be reviewed by HR and a response will be returned to the supervisor in 30 business days.” Typically, after three frustrating weeks and the involvement of no fewer than four people, a mousepad is finally approved.
How can one organization build and tear down an entire city in the same amount of time another requires to order a mousepad?
I sat down with one of the executives at the escrow company to further investigate. I assumed this strange policy was put in place in response to worker’s comp claims, lost productivity or even lawsuits. As it turns out, there were no claims, lawsuits or anything that would prompt a mousepad lockdown of this type.
The truth is, nobody at the company really understood how to deal with issues related to ergonomics, so it was mismanaged by HR from the beginning. The result was a collection of well-intended policies and procedures that actually worked against the organization and its people.
This isn’t unique. In fact, I see this in companies all over the country. An overactive drive to protect the organization and its people is a common fever in the HR function. It’s a cancerous form of liability reduction, and regardless of the intent, it can send a negative message to staff, such as:
• Things like a mousepad are too big of a decision to trust you with.
• Your needs and ideas for being effective are not important.
The moral of this story is: A well-intended policy that conflicts with human effectiveness will telegraph a culture of distrust to people.
It creates a needless divide, actively discouraging people from problem-solving as it strictly relies on the letter of the law rather than relationships. Unfortunately, employees in these environments typically do the minimum required to comply with the rules and offer nothing more.
Meanwhile, in an organization like Black Rock City, things are less prescriptive. There are no handbooks. No learning management systems. No one spends hundreds of hours writing policies. This is an environment where people are empowered to solve problems and encouraged to give the best of themselves. Low participation and low performance don’t last here, and violations of trust are policed by the community.
Organizations that build and encourage culture find it infinitely more powerful than written rules, and organizations that establish a culture of trust show remarkable results. Among the things we can see reflected on the bottom line are:
• People are more likely to have high job satisfaction.
• People are less likely to experience burnout.
• Engagement and alignment with organizational purpose improves.
So, the next time you sit down to formalize a company policy, I encourage you to pause and ask yourself if it is supporting your people and productivity, or if it is simply a policy.