What does zero tolerance mean for your business?

You’ve probably heard of ‘Zero Tolerance’ – policing that allows no crime or anti-social behaviour to be overlooked. How could the principle help you implement change in your business?

Why ‘Zero Tolerance’?

Sooner or later, your company’s change process will reach The Moment of Truth. This is the point where you are faced with a choice between the past and the future. Every part of you will urge you towards the familiar, the safer decision. But if you take that route, the process is doomed to fail.

You and your co-directors may have committed yourselves to a working culture based on trust and respect. Or perhaps one where you recognise and reward initiative and creativity. But the people who work for you will be watching and waiting for the evidence that this time it’s for real. That’s because actions speak louder than words. And that’s where ‘Zero Tolerance’ comes in.

The master salesman example

In a former client company, 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 that he could behave however he liked, and no-one would dare to 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 other 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. 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.

The Moment of Truth

Every change programme, sooner or later, reaches the point where it’s more comfortable for the leaders to stay with the status quo than to 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 risking those familiar, safe patterns of running the business by taking action to uphold your values and putting your money where your mouth is!

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