Why Don’t People Just Do What You Told Them To?

Posted on 18th March, 2013 in Leadership, Culture, Performance, Value

The Problem

Lots of organisations work out clever plans and strategies which will improve performance, safety and just about everything else.  The organisation posts clear guidelines on acceptable standards, puts ‘values’ posters next to every water cooler and regularly briefs the safety rules.  It’s all been worked out.  So why don’t people just do what they were told to?  The answer may be staring you in the face…


We were approached by a company with a query relating to a large project.   Apart from the project manager, the other 100 people working on the (cross-functional) project were all doing so in addition to their ‘day job’.  In spite of having a potentially significant impact on revenues, the project had been subject to several delays and overruns, so much so that many of the ‘team’ had had annual performance reviews from their line mangers, since starting work on the project.  Many line managers regarded the project as an irrelevant distraction from core activities and did not recognise project work within the reviews.  Senior executives within the company had become concerned by the lack of progress and wanted to run an externally facilitated intervention to ‘get people to buy in’.

Another company executive spoke to us about a safety challenge.  His company’s business was in what would be considered a high-risk environment where safety is itself a critical success factor.  Apart from the potential human tragedy of safety related incidents, the financial, operational and reputational risks were all significant.  The company had run a number of initiatives focused on safety but management were concerned that buy-in and compliance were limited.  In one interesting example, the executive spoke to us about how personnel would pay lip service to safety rules on their own site, but would take them more seriously on the main contractor’s site.  He wanted to run an intervention at the level of ‘shop floor’ and first line managers to improve compliance and the ‘safety culture’.

An Inconvenient Truth

Our response to both the above enquiries was rather more comprehensive than had been invited and described a proposal for a multi-level integrated intervention with the prime focus on senior executives.  In both cases, we were more or less told that ‘we didn’t get it’ and in fact, we didn’t get it [the work].  The root cause challenge here is framing the problem correctly.  The commercial challenge for us is that if you do that, you don’t often get the work for telling people what they don’t want to hear.  The inconvenient truth is that the problem is invariably leadership.

The majority of people don’t come to work planning to be deliberately dysfunctional, to let their colleagues down or to explicitly not comply with regulation or process just for the sake of it.  The one word which was very relevant in the second example was ‘culture’.  The problem was absolutely a cultural one, but that was not a problem which was likely to be solved from the bottom up.  Why don’t people just do what you told them to?  It’s the right question, but one needs to be careful where one looks for the answer.  Rather than the shop floor, a better place for senior executives to start might be a mirror.

A rather more objective (than the executives above) senior doctor and manager in the NHS had an interesting learning experience in this context.  He was invited to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.  On the first day he was impressed.  The professionalism and can-do attitude of the military medical staff faced with routine life-threatening trauma was deeply impressive.  He asked himself “what do the military do to get people to behave like this?”   On the second day he was proud.  He had spoken to many of the staff and started to realise that the majority were actually full-time NHS staff either on secondment or within the reserve forces.  He congratulated himself of the quality of NHS personnel.  On the third day he ‘got it’ and asked himself the ‘right’ question.  ‘It’s not that the people are any different, because they are the same people, so what do we [the NHS] do such that they don’t behave like this on our time?”  It’s not the people, it’s the organisational culture, and if there’s one big lever you can pull to affect culture, it’s leadership.

Why Would I Buy In?

I am a reasonable intelligent professional person.  But I’m not naïve.  I don’t believe everything that people tell me.  Actions speak louder than words.

  • Leadership.  Leadership is not just an exercise in communication or fancy words.  It’s a moral and emotional activity which happens through behaviours and actions.  If senior executives want the organisation to believe that something is really important, then it had better be literally and metaphorically at the top of their own agendas.  If there is a disconnection between what you say and do, then I’m going to believe what you do.
  • The Carrot.  You get the behaviour (performance) that you reward.  There must be clear alignment between what desired effort (and outcome) and what is rewarded and recognised.
  • The Stick.  Non-compliance with standards and values must have consequences, otherwise the espoused standards and values are no more than empty meaningless words.  Unfortunately it’s probably going to be necessary to make an example of somebody to demonstrate that you mean what you say.  Some moral courage is required.

For an unusual example of all of the above, Team Sky (world-leading professional cycling team) provide some interesting material.  Sir Dave Brailsford, the General Manager, and his top team, set up Team Sky with the publicly stated aim to win the Tour de France within 5 years with a completely drug-free team (it was achieved within 3 years).   Everything he has said and done since then has been consistent with that.  What was particularly interesting was how he dealt with the fallout of the Lance Armstrong investigation.  Several people either within, or connected with Team Sky, were implicated as having been associated with the use of performance-enhancing drugs earlier in their cycling career.   Brailsford asked his team psychiatrist to conduct interviews with everyone on the team; it was the one chance for disclosure which would be dealt with sympathetically and confidentially.  People were shown decency and respect however the outcome was that those who had been associated with drugs left.  There was no suggestion that this had happened during their time at Team Sky and Brailsford lost some key talented people.  He actually received some negative press – no redemption or forgiveness was allowed.  Brailsford’s response was simple:  “If you are articulating a set of standards and values, and saying that this is how we do business around here, then non-compliance has to have consequences.”

All of the above seems to largely pass the common sense test for me.  The bit which still eludes me is how we tell the boss that they are part of the problem and still get the work.  Answers on a postcard…

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