I am a site manager at a large datacenter. We have clear COVID-related safety policies for employees now coming back to work. Some of my managers are struggling with a handful of employees who disagree with these policies. Some employees are frustrated because they want to sit next to their friends and freely use our game room. When one manager asked an employee to wear a mask the employee responded that the manager was being self-righteous and selling out the Constitution. Frankly, having seen examples of violent confrontation on the news when store clerks remind customers to wear masks, my managers are afraid of provoking a similar incident.
How can we enforce our policies with employees who disagree without being confrontational?
Dear Avoiding Risk,
One of my biggest frustrations currently is that some in the media are feeding the flames of confrontation. Nightly stories of escalating anger pour gas on a fire that would otherwise simply smolder. They politicize honest disagreements by framing them as cataclysmic contests. Your job is already difficult enough as you try to safely manage your workplace. When media makes it seem like rare escalations are common occurrences, stress can feel unbearable.
Fortunately, in spite of this media-enhanced agitation, there are things you can do to help people at work harmoniously adopt commonly accepted safety behaviors. In addition to what I offer below, I urge you to watch my webinar on Back to Business tips or read more about it in my Harvard Business Review article.
- Hold a boot camp. The best way to handle a crucial conversation is to prevent it. Design a workshop that introduces the new policies, and have people attend it as they return to work. This gives you a chance to clarify expectations in an advantageous setting. I call this a “boot camp” because, similar to the military induction, it should be leader-led and hands-on. Don’t turn it into a PowerPoint presentation led by HR. Have everyone go through the motions of hand hygiene, mask donning, temperature taking, or whatever your policies are. People are most uncomfortable when trying things for the first time. It’s best to have that “first” be in a controlled group setting where reasoned discussion can take place, rather than in an awkward one-to-one moment with a manager or peer.
- Offer a clear moral frame. In the boot camp, leaders should be unapologetic about the intentions of their policies. Leaders should speak personally, where possible, about why they think the policies are appropriate and right. But don’t turn your moral motivation into self-righteousness. Instead . . .
- Allow room for disagreement, but not dissent. Leaders should acknowledge that some might disagree with what the company is asking. The truth is that organizations are asking customers and employees to do some inconvenient things that some may disagree with. What else is new? Many workplaces require employees to wear PPE even when some think it’s stupid. Lots of employers require drug testing that some think is invasive. People need not agree with everything in order to consent to it. So, don’t ask them to. Make it clear you are not asking for everyone to agree with leadership’s reasoning; you are simply asking for them to accept it. It is the nature of all social life to make compromises at times to be part of a group. We are all better off because we work together, even if our own ideas don’t win the day every time. If framed in this way, you can avoid unnecessary debates about science or morality.
- Ask for 200% Accountability. The only way to ensure new practices are adopted quickly and practiced consistently is to create a culture of “polite reminding.” We’ve created a set of videos you can use to promote this kind of culture. The key to avoiding confrontation is to ensure those issuing reminders do so kindly, and that leaders offer an example of receiving reminders with the utmost grace. The watchwords should be: “It’s kind to remind” and “When reminded, show gratitude not attitude.” Cover this in the Boot Camp, including a lighthearted, playful way of practicing these behaviors.
- Sign a commitment. People are far less likely to stray when they’ve made an explicit promise not to. For example, research shows that when we are presented with temptation to cheat, we are far less likely to give in if we have recently signed a promise to be honest. After disclosing and practicing the policies, ask for a commitment to comply. Having people sign a disclosure form that asks for a promise to comply, as an example, can encourage them to police themselves.
If you’ve set expectations in the way I’m describing, you will prevent the vast majority of ugly episodes. Yet correction may occasionally be required. If it is, follow these guidelines to avoid escalation:
- Say “Please.” Your motive in issuing a reminder is a huge predictor of the recipient’s response. If you’re coming from a place of judgment (“Put your mask on, you festering cur!”) or control (“You will use that hand gel!”) it doesn’t matter what words you use. People may pick up on your emotions and respond defensively. A good rule of thumb is “If you can say please convincingly, you’re probably in a good place.”
- Speak up, then let it go. After reminding your colleague, let it go. Don’t demand instantaneous compliance unless there is an imminent safety risk that justifies it. Give them a moment to work through any embarrassment they might feel. If you’re a leader and are responsible for ensuring compliance, circle back later to ensure they’re committed to doing better.
- Escalate without escalating. If someone appears unwilling to comply, pass the concern on to those who should handle it. Don’t turn it into a holy war by escalating matters unnecessarily in the moment. Emotions have tempos to them. Anger is fast. Calmness is slow. If you avoid pressing for a fast resolution, you can often find a more peaceful one.
If you take proper steps to prevent confrontation and then respond patiently but firmly in rare moments of resistance, 99.9% of people will suck it up and do what is asked, even if they don’t agree with it.
I deeply hope that we can all get through this quickly and do so with grace and patience.