Behavioral Econ Part II: Managing like you like it (and like them)

More thoughts on my April 25 post on behavioral economics and behavior change. This gets to the nub of what I want this blog to be (mostly) about.

Randy Cohen‘s anecdote made me think of another that appears in my no-question favorite management book: “It’s Your Ship,” by D. Michael Abrashoff. The story is about the owner of an industrial repair shop who kept his tools in a tool-issue room to avoid theft and losses. He paid the custodian of the tool-issue room $35,000 a year (this was c. 1990), and his workers spent part of their day standing in line to check tools in and out. So the owner did away with the tool issue room. No more lines. And over the next year, he spent only $2,000 to replace tools.

As Abrashoff puts it, a “lack of trust was costing him money.”

Bingo. Beware of the processes that get in the way of compliance. Beware of bureaucracy that takes the name of compliance but really has nothing to do with your company staying on the right side of law and ethics, because that busy-work only makes your team resent your legitimate compliance efforts. And beware of processes that may be contrary to your tone at the top.

There are things you’ve got to button down in tight processes, like, say FCPA compliance. Then there are areas where clearly and repeatedly communicating a vision and mission — and not contradicting them with your actions – goes a long way.  (Balance. An obvious point, right?)

And let me take this moment to give a fan’s rave to Abrashoff’s book. It’s the story of his time as captain of a US Navy destroyer, and how he used simple, commonsense trust and communication — treating his sailors as he would expect to be treated– to lead it to excellence. I’ve lead companies or business teams for more than 20 years of my career, and I’ve read a lot of management books — this is the one that, as I read it, I kept nodding my head. “Yes, that’s right!”, I kept saying. (I got real annoying to my family about it.) And there’s no diluting his approach by saying that a commercial executive can’t enforce the order and discipline that a military leader can; as Abrashoff notes, he was the ultimate middle-manager — with ranks of superiors above him and an immense bureaucracy surrounding him.

This book also carries an interesting history, to me, anyway. It was published in 2002, but demand made it disappear from book store shelves overnight in the fall of 2007, when it was mentioned on Monday Night Football as the inspirational leadership guidance for Bengals QB and Captain Carson Palmer.

Behavioral Economics and behavior change in the company

I have long advocated that behavior change is the New Frontier of company ethics programs. I’ve described it to my clients as the heart of “Compliance 3.0” (if the heart of v1.0 was the employee handbook and v2.0 was the code of conduct). It’s a hard nut to crack, but not rock hard. Just needs some attention to detail.

Whether an C-suite exec embraces this idea, that her company’s programs can actually affect the behavior of team members, is not a bad indicator of whether her company’s dedication to ethics and compliance is cynical or sincere.

In this light, some nice thinking about behavior change — and that it is for real — from perennial compliance thought-leader Jeffrey M. Kaplan. He gives it in an interview with compliance professional and recruiter Maurice Gilbert, in Gilbert’s meaty new website, Corporate Compliance Insights. Kaplan’s point is that the ideas of behavioral economics, a fundamental tenet of the Obama Administration, can and should be applied to leading one’s company toward ethical behavior:

“[T] need for strong C&E [compliance and ethics] programs has often been questioned based on the assumption that ethical decisions are driven almost entirely by character, and this view hurts C&E program efforts because character is largely beyond the reach of such programs. What [behavioral economics] shows is that this view is incorrect, and that by impacting in a positive way the situations in which ethical decisions are made – which is what truly effective C&E programs do – ethical “results” can indeed be significantly improved.”

Something for Execs to keep in mind if they need rebuttal evidence against the cynics.

Kaplan refers to an experiment that took place on the campus of my old client, the Princeton Theological Seminary. It found that people were much more likely to act like true Good Samaritans to a person in distress… if they were not running late.

It reminded me of an example used by Randy Cohen, author of “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times. Cohen basically says he has faith that ethics can be fostered by processes thanks to a small change at Penn Station in New York City. Used to be that it was a free-for-all to catch a cab on 7th or 8th Avenue next to Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. People would push and cut in and make cab-catching hopeless for anyone standing down the arterial flow. Then they put in a cab line on the sidewalk along each Avenue, with a painted line (or now, sometimes, a wimpy barricade) to mark where to stand in line and — presto! — people willingly and orderly got in the line and waited their turn. The non-compliant received social ostracization from their peers. No line attendant necessary.

Says Cohen in one interview:

“Now people stand in line-because you gave them a structure that made it possible for everyone to behave equitably and civilly to one another. People still cheat, but most don’t. It’s extraordinarily inspiring. There’s no fear of getting caught by the police. People do the right thing because they want to do the right thing and because they see those around them behaving ethically.”