Balancing between compliance and initiative – never an easy topic!


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Can you please advise – how do you balance between compliance with rules, and taking initiative?

Bewildered Manager

Dear Bewildered,

Isn’t this another million-dollar question? While is may seem like a simple and innocent question, there is more to it than meets the eye. For one, there are two levels to your question – the personal level, and the organizational level. Next, it deals with mindsets, specifically of the growth and the fixed mindset. And finally, it deals with personality and competencies. So from a simple question, I will now need to expound on these intricacies, making this a rather complex issue, really. So it may get a little unwieldy, so please bear with me.

Individual or Organizational?

The first thing we need to look at is the level at which this question is being directed. On an individual level, it means “Should I break the rules to bring in more revenue to the company, or should I just keep my mouth shut and toe the line?” There is no straight answer here, and it all comes down to what your primary role to the company is. If your role is to bring in revenue, then I say test the boundaries. If your role is to keep the boat afloat, then I say stay the compliant course. Ultimately, you need to see what behaviour will be rewarded and what will be punished, and take that route.

On an organizational level, it is surprisingly less difficult. The reason is because a good manager can pull the mavericks together and gun for more revenue and take more initiative, while organizing the back end to keep the house in order. Obviously the mavericks cannot go totally berserk and risk the whole company while looking for new white space, yet there is still great flexibility in organizing the company to have these two supposedly opposing forces to create a synergy between the two.

The growth and fixed mindsets

The next issue we need to discuss is the element of the growth and fixed mindsets. People with the growth mindset are those who are always for something new. They like to experiment with ideas and work innovation into their daily operations. They may be a little disdainful of structure because they see that as hindering growth. They may sometimes take things into their own hands to see how far they can get with their ideas. Ultimately, they are interested to learn new ways of doing things and getting them done, sometimes to the chagrin of the fixed mindset people.

So the flip side of the discussion is the fixed mindset people. To them, life is a test so they’d better get it right. They will not hazard a guess, or take an innovative leap, unless they have all the data for them to make the decision. They like things to move along as it is, and slow and steady is more their mantra. They will not put forward a new idea, but they are really good at saying what cannot be done. In a sense, the fixed mindset people keep within the rules, and govern the rules.

Can we be both? To many, the answer is no. But surprisingly, you do see people who can embrace both; knowing when to do what. Mr Lee Kuan Yew is one such person. He can throw the book at you when it comes to compliance matters (fixed mindset) but he is not afraid to experiment with the future (growth mindset). The difficulty is the ability to suspend both thoughts in the mind at the same time, and make a decision from that point of view. Very hard; and very few people can do it. Hence, it ultimately boils down to which mindset you subscribe to. That will tell you which of the two – compliance versus initiative – you would be more inclined to lean to.

Of personalities and competencies

The growth mindset can be adopted. It can be learnt. Yet, if your personality is rather introverted, you might not be able to fully harness the growth mindset. You might not even have the competencies to do what is needed. As they say, everyone is a sales person. Yet our paradigm of a salesperson – being outgoing, hard-charging and always motivated and on the move – may not be sustained by an introverted person. But an introvert can be a great sales person as well. You just need him to cultivate the right competencies to be one. Unfortunately, this rarely happens because of our limited mental model. We might have to redefine what sales is, and reapply new metrics, in order to bring out the sales person in the introvert. And this might skew our discussion on the balance between compliance and initiative.

What it comes down to

So in the end, it all boils down to our values; our values for the person, our values for the position, and our values for the organisation. The problem doesn’t arise when there is congruence – i.e. the CFO asking for financial governance and cost economy; but when there is dissonance – the CFO asking for new markets. After all, when you mix the growth mindset with the fixed mindset all in one, you get totally mixed signals and you cannot proceed. In times like these, we need to return to the core of the person, and of his position. Give to the compliance officer the rules, and give to the business development officer the initiative.

Easier said than done, though.

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