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If you buy a mobile phone in an Orange shop and it fails to work properly what do you do? Take it back of course and demand a refund.

But if you have discarded the original packaging Orange retail return procedures prevent the shop assistant from simply refunding your money. They almost guarantee customers will be left feeling angry and frustrated at such short-sightedness.

Process and bureaucracy permeate our largest commercial organisations. Some people imagine these enterprises would grind to a halt without countless systems and procedures.

“Some of our bureaucratic processes are completely demoralising and prevent people from engaging,” comments Angela O’Connor, chief officer for people and development at the Police Improvement Agency. Her view though could equally apply to virtually any large UK business right now.

The tyranny of processes can be draining and destructive, preventing both people and organisations from fulfilling their potential. Many organisations want their people to feel fully engaged and know that this is the route to better performance. Yet endless processes, procedures, bureaucracy and “rules” all conspire to undermine individual performance.

Famously the US company Nordstrom the Seattle-based retailer hands all newcomers a large book of rules. It is empty except for the following:

“We’re glad to have you with our Company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule #1: Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.
Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

A while back we worked with a pharmaceutical company whose entrepreneurial founder remained active as chairman. In discussions about how to improve employee performance he complained about the company’s computerised control system that provided comprehensive procedures for just about everything the company now did.

When he first started the company, common sense governed when to order production to replace depleted stock. Judgement and market awareness allowed him, and later his managers, to make rapid, and intelligent decisions on the ordering process.

Now though, the decision to re-order was entirely controlled by the computer system and when it failed to anticipate an upsurge in demand the company suffered a serious shortfall in stock.

How can people feel engaged when they are surrounded by processes that constantly constrain and undermine their creativity and sense of self worth? So much is talked about managing talent while simultaneously the dead weight of systems and procedures alienate people and destroy personal initiative.

A golden rule used in some companies is “Do anything so long as you do not hole the ship below the water line.” This means make all kinds of decisions so long as you do not jeopardise the company’s ability to stay afloat.

For more regulated industries it might mean not allowing the company to behave illegally.

As the Nordstrom example shows, ultimately there is a trade off between trust and rules, between belief in the commitment of employees and their need to be hedged around with constraints.

Trust makes the quest for engagement achievable. Without it engagement shrivels and dies. To generate trust though depends on a steady accumulation of the right kind of actions. These include:

1) Speak out: encourage people to say what they think and challenge existing procedures
2) Listen: managers really listen to people, not just talk at them
3) Cultural differences: these are both recognised and respected
4) Emotional intelligence: leaders and managers demonstrate empathy
5) Consistency: managers say what they mean and mean what they say
6) Relationship building: this has a high priority across the organisation
7) Fairness: decision making is expected to be objective so those in a weaker bargaining position are not exploited.
8) Openness: open communication allows all employees to share their concerns with management.
9) Integrity: managers and leaders model ethical and socially responsible behaviour
10) Shared values: these are constantly articulated and checks made on whether these are being acted upon.


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