Implementing change via ‘zero tolerance’

What, you might think, does ‘Zero Tolerance’ – policing that allows no crime or anti-social behaviour to be overlooked – have to do with my business? There are a number of ways in which the principle can be helpful when you’re managing change.

As your company develops, you will face a moment when you choose between what you’ve done before and what you might achieve in the future. The easy route is to ‘stay the same’ – but in fact no business ever stays the same, and if you don’t make positive changes at the right moment, the prognosis for your business won’t be good.

This is where your past commitments come home to roost. Perhaps one of your company Values is the promise of an environment based on “trust and respect”; or one where “initiative and creativity are recognised and rewarded”.

The people who work for you will be watching and waiting for the evidence that your promises are good. That’s because actions speak louder than words. And that’s where ‘Zero Tolerance’ comes in.

Case study: the top salesperson

A former client’s company was looking at a change programme, and the Sales Director was a master salesman. Over the previous three years he had personally closed deals worth 30% of the company’s gross sales. However, he was an arrogant person, capable of behaving very unpleasantly. He believed that his value to the company meant he could behave however he liked, and no one would dare challenge him. He announced that they could come up with “any fancy ideas they liked”; he had no intention of changing the way he behaved.

At this point, the rest of the Directors had three options:

  1. Persuade the Sales Director to play a full, positive role in the change programme; a long shot, but worth trying.
  2. Abandon the programme now, before involving anyone outside the Board; proceeding with a member of the team blatantly acting in contradiction of the new values would be worse than doing nothing.
  3. Replace the Sales Director; not a choice to be made lightly, given the (commercial) value he brought to the company.

It quickly became clear that persuasion wasn’t going to work, and after some difficult conversations they negotiated his departure.

That decision did more than anything else the Board could have done to make the change programme a success. Before they even knew what the new company values were, every member of staff knew that this time they were for real; this was one change programme that the Directors really intended to deliver. What’s more, within 12 months they’d recovered the lost business, and staff turnover in the Sales Department had dropped from eleven to five per cent.

Keep the status quo or move forward with change?

Every change programme, sooner or later, reaches the point where it’s more comfortable for the leaders to stay with the status quo than go forward. This is the moment of truth. It’s what everyone in the company has been waiting for; the moment when they make up their mind whether this time it’s for real. The signal that you send at this moment is critical. The right decision will do more to drive things forward than any number of motivational posters and company meetings. The wrong decision is fatal.

What would it take to have your company culture operate Zero Tolerance for any behaviour which falls outside your Values? At the very least, it would mean that everyone, from the most senior executive to the most junior trainee, demanded the same high standards of themselves and those around them.

And it might mean taking tough decisions. Think long and hard about this before getting into a company change programme: one day it might come down to (temporarily) risking those familiar, safe patterns of running the business, taking action to uphold your values, and actually putting your money where your mouth is!

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