The Memo-Fication of Responsibility

It took a global pandemic to help me see something that’s been going on for years: the slow and steady memo-fication of responsibility. This pattern really became evident as I was introduced to a local company’s “back to work” plan.

Their leadership team understands that times have changed and that they need to embrace new workplace practices when it’s safe to return to work. They’re a thoughtful group, and it shows in the amount of time and effort they’ve put into to learning about best practices for maintaining workplace safety amidst the coronavirus outbreak. They really want their employees to be safe and feel safe.

After some time researching and crafting a well-thought-out plan, they formatted all their ideas into a memo for public consumption and launched their program, satisfied they had done enough.

“I wonder how long it will be before it takes hold in the organization?” mused one leader as they reflected on their efforts. “No need to wonder!” I responded. “We have a lot of examples of essential businesses that have already gone through this.” I then related the following story.

The other day, one of my good friends and colleagues braved the risks of shopping in a pandemic to stock up on needed essentials. Mask in place, he stepped from the sanctity of his car and moved toward the wild frontier marked “Enter Here.” As he approached the entrance, he couldn’t help but notice a large sign outlining some health and safety guidelines, the primary of which was “No mask, no shopping here.” Pretty clear.

Once inside, however, he found people following a different rule: “No mask, no problem.” Which ended up being a big problem for many customers and employees alike.

But what about the sign right outside the entrance? And how about the other signs throughout the store indicating the same thing? Shouldn’t that be enough? What is enough?

Maybe you’re at the point of launching your own back-to-work plan, or maybe you know someone who is. You may be worried that your plan is fated to low compliance like the retail store mentioned above.

If so, understand that the success of your plan will have very little to do with the plan itself. It could be the greatest plan ever devised, and it could still fall short. Why? It stems from the memo-fication of a plan—when it’s turned into a formal position document and posted in a public place, virtual or physical, with the expectation that the “memo” will prompt employees and customers to follow through on the plan. One retail industry leader summed it up this way during a recent interview: “It shouldn’t be the role of a retail employee to enforce the [rules]. Stores should rely on signs and PA announcements to inform the public of the rules.”

Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that leaders who do this are insensitive or uncaring. Many well-intentioned, thoughtful leaders memo-fy the responsibility for plans in an effort to make employees’ lives easier. But in the end, those employees are the ones who suffer most.

It’s tempting for leaders to believe that if they elevate a person’s understanding of an issue, behaviour change will follow inevitably. In reality, until you teach your people at all levels to take responsibility for the new plan, it’s doomed to wane while everyone involved whines about it.

Wise leaders take a different track. While most leaders are gearing down once they’ve memo-fied their plan, the best leaders are gearing up. They realize that their people face an overabundance of triggers that initiate a series of auto-pilot behaviours—which, by the way, usually run contrary to the new behaviours they need to adopt. For example, people often leave home without a mask because nothing reminded them to wear a mask. So, by the time they are reminded, at the front door of the store, it’s too late to comply with expected behaviour.

Good leaders understand that the memo is not enough to change behaviour, and presuming it is leaves employees stuck in an extremely tough position. Employees then feel unprepared to deal with violations, because they ARE unprepared. The memo didn’t work. Not even a second or third reading made it more effective.

Here are some things effective leaders do to help employees take responsibility for a plan, so they’re plan doesn’t slowly succumb to the process of memo-fication.

It starts at the door. Think of your workplace as a unique cultural enclave. Regardless of what’s happening outside of it, focus on what happens inside. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct a trigger audit. Identify the existing triggers of counter-productive behaviours (for example, meeting rooms that would invite close congregation) and add new triggers that make it easy for people to adopt the new behaviours (spaced desks, for example). Design the environment so that it’s easy to remember and enact the new behaviours.

It continues with your people. Have people practice the new behaviours. As McDonald’s prepares to re-open, they’ve designed practice scenarios that help employees take responsibility for themselves and others. They not only practice safe health routines; they also practice what to do when someone else deviates from those routines. And since they expect most of those deviations to come from customers, they’ve developed specific scripts related to customer situations. They understand that it takes people at all levels holding one another accountable to breathe life into any initiative.

It ends with you. Upper management might decide to roll a plan out, but it’s how leaders promote and support the plan that determines whether people will do their part to make it reality. Your people are looking for evidence of your support. It needs to be unmistakably obvious. It’s not enough to voice your support; you have to back that up with actions. Actions like publicly praising those who confront you in a moment you weren’t adhering to agreed-upon behaviours.

Only when you take the responsibility out of the memo and enable your people to take responsibility at all levels will you see real change happen.

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