Observations Policy Reflection Systems

Pondering the Purpose of Policies.

What’s your policy on wearing pants?

We all have a personal policy about pants. My policy is that I shall wear pants on all days unless (a) I am attending a special event where a dress or skirt is indicated or (b) it is a hot day and I must wear something professional, so a dress or skirt is the cooler option.

Hang in there with me. This isn’t actually about pants.

I’ve been chewing on the purpose of policies. Much of my work life is dedicated to the creation and amending of policies for a system.

It makes me feel disappointed to see that policies often cater to the lowest common denominator. They seem to solely focus on preventing undesired behaviors and outcomes. It’s almost as if policies are written for those people or organizations, whether they exist or not, with the worst intentions.

Policies aren’t inspiring. They don’t talk about what could be or what we should strive for. This might be why we find policies tedious to read.

A colleague pointed out that, yes, policies are for the lowest common denominator because people often have the worst intentions.

“Think about the Ten Commandments,” she said. “Like ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. Those are really basic things, but we need them. Those are policies to help us get along.”

Indeed, those religious prohibitions are not inspiring. What if we rephrased them? What if we said “Thou shalt honor life” instead of “Thou shalt not kill”? Doesn’t the idea of honoring life inspire more creativity and joy than a fearful instruction to not kill?

I think my colleague would reply that people need explicit directions. A exhortation to honor life does not guarantee that people will stop killing.

In his book Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz laments how policies can affect our abilities to do the right thing the right way. If we rely on policies, we ignore the nuances of the situation and stop thinking. When we stop thinking, we lose our wisdom. We end up looking to policies to prevent the worst thing from happening. The prevention of the worst thing, however, does not equal the creation of something better.

Call me naive—you won’t be the first—but I believe that, for most people, they meet the expectations you have of them. If you have high expectations, people will often meet them. (To be clear, there is a balance: Most expectations must be realistic. If they aren’t, people become demoralized.) It’s meaningful to people when they realize that someone believes in them when they may not believe in themselves. High expectations are frequently a form of respect.

(Perhaps I am straying. A significant difference between individual expectations and policies is the relationship. Relationships between people rely on invisible things like trust, hope, and respect. Relationships between organizations rely on visible things like contracts, memoranda, and policies. We often don’t feel like we have total control over what we do as individuals. How can an organization, comprised of potentially hundreds of people, control its behaviors to meet the expectations of another organization without those invisible connections?)

Someone on Twitter recently commented that policies should reflect the morals of the organization. I like that. If policies focus on documentation requirements and payment arrangements, but say nothing about the quality of services, what does that say about the organization? Does a mission statement have any meaning if the policies and procedures do not align with the stated mission? If the policies only comment on how to prevent the worst thing from happening, why would anyone expect extraordinary quality from the organization?

Perhaps I need to reframe, for myself, the purpose of policies. Policies help prevent bad things from happening. That’s good. Prevention is underappreciated: It’s difficult to measure things that didn’t happen. The difficulty in showing that less bad things happened, however, doesn’t mean that the activity of prevention is worthless.

It’s not an “either/or” issue. Policies prevent bad things from happening, which is valuable. But, as I noted above, preventing bad things and creating better things are two different activities. We don’t want to focus our energy on just preventing bad things from occurring. We must also create new things, or we otherwise will not progress.

The primary reason for my personal pants policy is comfort, though there are professional implications, too. Much of my work in the past involved talking to people in atypical places: Sometimes I’d have to step over puddles of mud to talk to the man living in the park; sometimes I’d have to slip between towers of yellowed magazines to reach the elderly woman seated on her bed. These days, wearing pants makes it less likely that male inmates will make unwelcome comments about my legs. Pants prevent bad things from happening to me.

My other clothing policy is to wear bright colors or patterns to work. People—colleagues, patients, strangers—often comment on the shirts I wear, frequently while smiling. That helps build rapport and connections, even if they are initially based on something as superficial as polka dots on a shirt. These relationships, though, often help create better things and situations for us all.