In the news this past week were two events that could be used to drive home to employees those seemingly bureaucratic and overly cautious rules do have important purposes. The first was the tragic loss of three lives in Yosemite National Park. Three young men climbed to the top of the 317-foot Vernal Fall and, upon reaching the top, climbed over the guard rail to trod the slick rocks over to the middle of the Merced River for a better photo op. In doing so, they disregarded the barricades, the warning signs, and the pleas from fellow hikers to stop. Just 25 feet from the precipice the three young people were swept away by the swift-moving waters that were in extra heavy flow mode because of high snowfall this past winter. All three were killed. The second event involved a young missionary from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints serving a mission in Guatemala. On a day trip to the Guatemala City zoo, the young man climbed a concrete wall for a better photo op in front of the lion cage. The concrete wall that separated man and beast was not as tall as it seemed. Never climb atop a wall that separates you from the lions. The wall may look high on your side, but may be within pawsâ€™ reach from the lionsâ€™ perspective. The wall is there for protection, not to be climbed. One lion was able to reach up and grab the young missionary atop the wall by his right leg. Once he was pinned, a second lion grabbed his left upper arm. The young man lost five pints of blood as his companions worked for two minutes to free him from the mauling beasts.
We demand compliance with the classic parental justification, â€œBecause I said so,â€ when helping employees to understand the really good reasons, research, and thought process behind the rules might edge them along into attitudinal shifts that require less supervision. When employees round corners, change processes, bend rules, and interpret terms in order to get what they want more quickly or achieve a desired result, they probably believe they are experienced and know better than whatever regulator, supervisor, or internal person established them. Helping employees to understand their reasoning for bending and breaking rules is flawed goes a long way in the compliance battle.
Here are the critical issue in rules appreciation, evidenced by these tragic incidents:
1. Folks with experience and knowledge put up the signs and erected the barricades. They have experience with rushing water and lions and made the rules based on their data set. Those who encounter the rule for the first time lack experience and data. When they substitute their judgment for that of those who established the rules, there is risk that they are unable to measure precisely because they are inexperienced. One of the hikers offered this observation about the fatal incident, “I can understand they wanted to get close to it because it’s a beautiful site. But you have to be respectful toward nature.” You need to understand natureâ€™s power. Whether raging waters or mauling lions, nature does its thing and her power is why we have walls, guardrails, and warnings. National Park rangers, zookeepers, and administrators do, and the rules are their best advice for ensuring safety.
2. The drive for results causes disregard for the rules. In both cases, those who were harmed wanted something better than the dullards who operate by the rules. They wanted a terrific and different photo. Unable to settle for achievement within the rules, they placed themselves above the rules.
3. The consequences for the individuals who broke the rule were fatal or life-changing. So it is with broken rules within companies â€“ the company is never the same, the financial setbacks are great, and individual careers end.
4. Even as they set out to break the rules, they ignored warnings because others had not been harmed when they broke the rule. Others at Vernal Fall had apparently made the slick trek to the riverâ€™s middle without incident, so as the three young people witnessed their success, they assumed that, despite the rules, crossing the barricade was what â€œeveryone was doing,â€ â€œno one is really harmed by this,â€ and â€œthings had been fine in the past.â€ These classic rationalizations offer comfort to rule-breakers. Still another witness to the ill-fated disregard of a simple rule said people tried to warn them, â€œThey said, ‘You know what man, get your ass back over here.'” All in all, not a bad summary for compliance officers everywhere as they rein in employees who bend, break, and round the corners on important rules.
The Yosemite staff is now handing out newsletter advice to visitors as they enter the park, “Never swim or wade upstream from a waterfall, even if the water appears shallow and calm.” Sometimes we have deliberate defiance of rules by employees. More often than not, we have folks who fail to understand why the rules, barricades, and prohibitions are important. They are there for protection even when we donâ€™t see the potential risk or harm. Help them with understanding the harm and the compliance part becomes much easier.