Volunteer or comply? A huge question for leaders

For the moment I will put aside my frustrations at the people in our society who are refusing COVID vaccines, and instead I want to talk about an important leadership question related to compliance in the workplace.

Over the years I’ve heard leaders struggling regularly with the question of whether or not it’s a leader’s job to tell people what to do, as opposed to obtaining the employee’s engagement and voluntary effort to do the thing the leader desires.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard business leaders saying:

I never want to tell my people what they have to do – I prefer they use their best judgment and make their own best choices.

I just want people who come to work and know the right thing to do without having to be told.

I can lead the horse to water, but I can’t make him drink. I can recommend and encourage behaviors but I can’t make everyone follow the same rules.

I shouldn’t have to set workplace rules. All the best behaviors in my organization come from our employee’s intrinsic motivations and their understanding and embrace of our values.

Of course, from a psychological and even spiritual perspective, organizations and societies are healthiest when they come together under the banner of a shared vision and shared values, resulting in voluntary rather than compulsory compliance. I won’t argue that point, and my default is always to ask for support rather than demand it.

But this effort to create voluntary compliance has its limits, especially when a given behavior in the workplace has health or safety implications for the workers there.

Leaders have a tough decision to make when voluntary compliance doesn’t work or doesn’t work entirely. This question applies to any number of issues in the workplace such as safety rules, process requirements, behavioral norms, and legal issues matters such as sexual harassment.

Many years ago we worked as a society, through persuasion and education, to reduce cigarette smoking in our society. This effort to educate, and to appeal to people’s best judgment, was largely but not completely successful. As a result, legislation and health regulations became necessary. In the end, it has become unlawful in most cases to smoke in public spaces. What we don’t know is how many people would have continued to smoke cigarettes in our shopping malls and workplaces if the legal requirement had not been established.

So here we are with COVID. We’ve played out as far as we can, I think, the process of appealing to people’s objectivity and sense of community in order to get their voluntary commitment. Now we are in a new phase, which is the necessary establishment of rules and consequences that make it more difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to remain unvaccinated and keep one’s job.

What’s the leadership challenge in this? Other than dealing with huge disruption to one’s business, the challenge I think is deciding once and for all that, on this issue, your judgment is better than the judgment of many of your employees — that in this case at least you know better than they do what’s good for them. This recognition that you have to force people to do something they don’t want to do is a difficult one for many leaders. We hold on to the vision that we are inspirational leaders and not policemen. We like to think we can lead that horse to water and he’ll drink gratefully from the trough.

There may be sadness in this for many leaders, to have to deal with the disturbing reality that even with their best efforts to inform and inspire there may be times when they simply have to set rules and require compliance. We don’t like treating people this way, but sometimes, perhaps more often than we’d like, we must.

If an employee accuses you of taking away their personal freedoms, you might say “yes, that’s right, in this case, I am putting the need to keep us safe ahead of your personal freedom.”

If it helps to think of it this way, we all forfeit our personal freedoms every day in the interests of living in a civilized society. We can’t create a fetish around individual freedom. We drive the speed limit. We don’t hunt animals or fish for salmon out of season. We show our ID and allow our luggage to be inspected at the airport. We wear helmets when we ride motorcycles, and we fasten our seat belts. And now, in the very same spirit, we now get a COVID vaccine or accept the judgment and conditions of an employer or a society that this is what needs to be done, and what must be done.



About the Author

Sarah Thomson

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *