Influencer QA

The Memo-Fication of Responsibility

It took a global pandemic to help me see something that’s been going on for years: the slow and steady memo-fication of responsibility. This pattern really became evident as I was introduced to a local company’s “back to work” plan.

Their leadership team understands that times have changed and that they need to embrace new workplace practices when it’s safe to return to work. They’re a thoughtful group, and it shows in the amount of time and effort they’ve put into to learning about best practices for maintaining workplace safety amidst the coronavirus outbreak. They really want their employees to be safe and feel safe.

After some time researching and crafting a well-thought-out plan, they formatted all their ideas into a memo for public consumption and launched their program, satisfied they had done enough.

“I wonder how long it will be before it takes hold in the organization?” mused one leader as they reflected on their efforts. “No need to wonder!” I responded. “We have a lot of examples of essential businesses that have already gone through this.” I then related the following story.

The other day, one of my good friends and colleagues braved the risks of shopping in a pandemic to stock up on needed essentials. Mask in place, he stepped from the sanctity of his car and moved toward the wild frontier marked “Enter Here.” As he approached the entrance, he couldn’t help but notice a large sign outlining some health and safety guidelines, the primary of which was “No mask, no shopping here.” Pretty clear.

Once inside, however, he found people following a different rule: “No mask, no problem.” Which ended up being a big problem for many customers and employees alike.

But what about the sign right outside the entrance? And how about the other signs throughout the store indicating the same thing? Shouldn’t that be enough? What is enough?

Maybe you’re at the point of launching your own back-to-work plan, or maybe you know someone who is. You may be worried that your plan is fated to low compliance like the retail store mentioned above.

If so, understand that the success of your plan will have very little to do with the plan itself. It could be the greatest plan ever devised, and it could still fall short. Why? It stems from the memo-fication of a plan—when it’s turned into a formal position document and posted in a public place, virtual or physical, with the expectation that the “memo” will prompt employees and customers to follow through on the plan. One retail industry leader summed it up this way during a recent interview: “It shouldn’t be the role of a retail employee to enforce the [rules]. Stores should rely on signs and PA announcements to inform the public of the rules.”1

Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that leaders who do this are insensitive or uncaring. Many well-intentioned, thoughtful leaders memo-fy the responsibility for plans in an effort to make employees’ lives easier. But in the end, those employees are the ones who suffer most.

It’s tempting for leaders to believe that if they elevate a person’s understanding of an issue, behavior change will follow inevitably. In reality, until you teach your people at all levels to take responsibility for the new plan, it’s doomed to wane while everyone involved whines about it.

Wise leaders take a different track. While most leaders are gearing down once they’ve memo-fied their plan, the best leaders are gearing up. They realize that their people face an overabundance of triggers that initiate a series of auto-pilot behaviors—which, by the way, usually run contrary to the new behaviors they need to adopt. For example, people often leave home without a mask because nothing reminded them to wear a mask. So, by the time they are reminded, at the front door of the store, it’s too late to comply with expected behavior.

Good leaders understand that the memo is not enough to change behavior, and presuming it is leaves employees stuck in an extremely tough position. Employees then feel unprepared to deal with violations, because they ARE unprepared. The memo didn’t work. Not even a second or third reading made it more effective.

Here are some things effective leaders do to help employees take responsibility for a plan, so they’re plan doesn’t slowly succumb to the process of memo-fication.

It starts at the door. Think of your workplace as a unique cultural enclave. Regardless of what’s happening outside of it, focus on what happens inside. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct a trigger audit. Identify the existing triggers of counter-productive behaviors (for example, meeting rooms that would invite close congregation) and add new triggers that make it easy for people to adopt the new behaviors (spaced desks, for example). Design the environment so that it’s easy to remember and enact the new behaviors.

It continues with your people. Have people practice the new behaviors. As McDonald’s prepares to re-open, they’ve designed practice scenarios that help employees take responsibility for themselves and others. They not only practice safe health routines; they also practice what to do when someone else deviates from those routines. And since they expect most of those deviations to come from customers, they’ve developed specific scripts related to customer situations. They understand that it takes people at all levels holding one another accountable to breathe life into any initiative.

It ends with you. Upper management might decide to roll a plan out, but it’s how leaders promote and support the plan that determines whether people will do their part to make it reality. Your people are looking for evidence of your support. It needs to be unmistakably obvious. It’s not enough to voice your support; you have to back that up with actions. Actions like publicly praising those who confront you in a moment you weren’t adhering to agreed-upon behaviors.

Only when you take the responsibility out of the memo and enable your people to take responsibility at all levels will you see real change happen.

1 “Leaving Employees to Enforce Social Distancing.” Marketplace. Accessed June 8, 2020. https://www.marketplace.org/shows/marketplace-morning-report/employees-social-distancing-businesses-oil-prices-pawnshops/.

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Steve Willis

As one of the original trainers at VitalSmarts, Steve has been on the forefront of developing award-winning training programs, perfecting quality training platforms, and delivering training content that has influenced more than 500,000 people to date. In addition, Steve has trained and certified thousands of employees, managers, and trainers from Fortune 500 companies across the nation. read more

24 thoughts on “The Memo-Fication of Responsibility”

  1. Changing behaviors is difficult, but one suggestion I have is to have a most creative, or most fun, or scariest mask contest for employees and later for customers, the regular ones. Making the new behavior fun is is a positive way to change the culture.

  2. I strongly disagree. As a person who has a history of lung issues, it is discrimination against those who cannot wear masks. If they require a face shield or mask then that would be acceptable in a retail setting as it would not discriminate against those who have lung issues and cannot breathe with a mask.

    1. Hi Carrie, I am sorry for your situation but I do not understand your response. People with lung issues should be extra-cautious because they have a higher risk. If they are truly concerned they should not enter a retail place in the first place. I sympathize with people with lung issue but walking into an indoor area without a mask not only increases the risk of a health problem for the person but also endangers everyone else. A face shield protects the eyes and extends the life of a mask but it does not offer the same protection from spreading droplets from the mouth and nose. I suggest searching for an alternative such as curbside service or finding another person to your shopping for you. I realize that adds complications but if you have lung issues then you absolutely do not want to get Covid. Best Wishes.

        1. Absolutely true. And completely irrelevant to the topic of masking at retail stores which was the focus of my comment. MRI’s are medical tests and as such would have their own masking rules.

          1. I generally try to expand excellent, thoughtful articles like this to more situations than were specified in the article. So, not really irrelevant as there are a vast number of businesses and other organizations that are memofied. Great word, too!

          2. I agree. It’s a wonderful and insightful article. But I replied to Carrie who specifically mentioned “a retail setting.” You responded to my response. If you want to expand on the general theme, which I totally support, then respond to the article itself and not to my specific response to a specific responder about the specific topic of shopping in a retail setting. I have no wish to get into a dispute with you. Peace be with you.

  3. Quick note: “Here are some things effective leaders do to help employees take responsibility for a plan, so they’re plan doesn’t slowly succumb to the process of memo-fication.” “They’re” *should* be “their”. Right?

  4. Policy by Memo (or email) seldom works well without physical examples of the new behavior. Leaders need to lead by example and accountability. Crowd-think is never the best way to enforce a rule. Companies that have well thought out plans that include requirements and screening for entering the perimeter of the workplace, a redesigned workplace, rules of engagement, increased sanitary stations and increased clean air components like fans and HEPA filtration, are the companies to work for. They care about their people and their investments. I’m proud that my company has really embraced the new normal.

    Great article, thank you.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, and glad to hear that your organization is taking good care of you and the rest of the employees.

  5. I’m understanding the purpose for the article is to encourage leaders/administration to think through strategy, introduce, achieve, reintroduce if necessary, and implement policies and procedures. The use of “a mask,” in my perspective, is a controversial example. Does retail have the right and responsibility to invoke policy on customers when some feel the data of safety while wearing a mask is unclear, skewed, and based on opinion not fact? If no mask, no service is a policy, how will this effect customer service? What is the purpose of the “no mask, no service” policy? How does this policy affect the business moving forward? In creating any policy, serious questions should be answered. From my experience, once a policy is approved, it’s difficult to remove and/or revise.

    1. I think you’re seeing it correctly–it’s less about the mask and more about not giving the new policy/procedure the attention it needs to be fully realized after it’s been announced. I’ve seen the same pattern with safety guidelines in nuclear power plants, customer service related SLAs in accounting firms, diversity and inclusion initiatives at high tech companies, etc. Leaders need to make sure their work and effort to develop a policy is matched by the work and effort to implement and sustain it.

    2. Hi Robin, there is no controversy when it comes to the use of masks. The research is absolutely clear that wearing a mask helps to decrease the transmission of droplets which holds the Covid virus. This situation is a public health issue. The research is also absolutely clear that being inside a room with lots of people increases your chances of contracting Covid from another person. The science is solid. If some people believe the science is unclear then they have not done the research. The purpose of “no mask, no service” is exactly the same as “no shoes, no shirt, no service.” Both set limits with clear boundaries; both offer choices and consequences and the consequences can be enforced.

  6. Although the research demonstrates that wearing a mask can inhibit the transmission of droplets, there is no scientific evidence that this has any real effect on preventing or limiting the spread of the virus in public in and of itself. Please do your research.
    Also there are a variety of “face covering” materials being used, and each will have its positives and negatives, depending upon its material and structure. The research I have read indicates that the typical types of face coverings used in public either protect the wearer, or protect the transmission from the wearer to another, none do both. Research also shows that the majority of transmission comes from our own hands by touching our mouth, nose or eyes. This is problematic when it comes to wearing masks in public, as I observe the majority of people putting on and taking off their masks without washing their hands. I see mask touching, cell phone use, nose exposed, mask worn on the neck and all other sorts of actions in public that render the face covering ineffective.
    So, in my opinion, when we “memo’ an action as being responsible, all of those targeted by the memo must understand and support that action for it to be successful.
    In the case of the “mask” or “face covering”, it has become a controversial subject, mainly due to the lack of scientific evidence to support it, and therefore not compelling all to follow it.

    1. Hi Tom, I have done my research and you are incorrect. There is a large amount of research showing the usefulness of masks in preventing the spread of the droplets. Just yesterday Dr. Fauci testified that everyone should be wearing a mask. This is a public health issue not a political issue. There is nothing new about knowing that masks help stop transmission — researchers knew that during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. It’s only controversial because of the dreadful lack of leadership of the highest levels. A true leader unites, not divides.

      1. And in this case, the lack of leadership was Dr. Fauci lying to the American public about the efficacy of face masks in the spring. Which he admitted to on TV.

        1. Yes. He admitted it. His explanation is, basically, that it was for the greater good .

          So let’s evaluate what he did using the principles of Crucial Conversations.

          These were the facts at the time:
          1) there was a shortage of critically needed PPE
          2) healthcare workers taking care of patients during a pandemic needed the PPE before the general public because healthcare works are directly in harms way
          3) when the PPE became more available they encouraged the general public to wear masks
          4) many people in the community volunteered to make masks for both healthcare workers and the general public.

          Under those circumstances what decision would YOU have made? And how would you implement that decision?

          I look forward to your response.

          1. No way would I then bring it up on a television interview. The facts on the ground include that FACT that masks work, and he could certainly have advocated the handkerchief mask under the circumstances. He did, in FACT, LIE to the public. Now, I have zero trust in him or anything he pronounces. Who knows how many people could have not been infected had even rudimentary masks been used?

          2. Hi Sharon, I do not disagree with you that he lied. I think he did so because he believed in the greater good. My understanding from your answer is that you believe truth is always the greater good no matter what. Please correct me if I am wrong.

            Dr. Fauci believed it was important for healthcare workers, especially the ones dealing directly with Covid patients, to have masks and he was concerned if everyone rushed to buy masks that healthcare workers would not have enough. Do you disagree with his concerns? Do you think there would have been enough masks for the healthcare workers? If not what would you have done? Do you think telling the public to use a handkerchief mask would have sufficed for the public? Do you think that if Dr. Fauci had told the public that masks are important but please don’t buy them, please save them for the healthcare workers, instead, wear a handkerchief mask, the general public would have followed his advice?

            Another question to you is this: do you believe Dr. Fauci had malevolent intentions when he lied? Do you believe he intended to hurt the public? Or to help the healthcare workers?

            A final question for you. Dr. Fauci has admitted he lied and he has stated his reason. Now he states, repeatedly, that it is important to wear masks and nd he models his belief by wearing a mask. Do you believe that if a person lies one time that then means you can never trust that person again no matter what? Even if they admit it and tell you why? That is what I hear you saying but I could be wrong and misinterpreting your statements.

            Thank you for the discussion. 🙂

          3. Hi Sharon, I do not disagree with you that he lied. I think he did so because he believed in the greater good. My understanding from your answer is that you believe truth is always the greater good no matter what. Please correct me if I am wrong.

            I do not necessarily believe that truth is always the greater good. In this case, I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he believed that he was lying for the greater good. However, this was the infantilizing of the American public. An honest information campaign to get people to wear home-made or general-use masks could well have prevented a lot of the victims. That said, particularly in time of war, truth is almost never the greater good. However, we are not presently at war in the country. At least, not an open shooting war.

            Dr. Fauci believed it was important for healthcare workers, especially the ones dealing directly with Covid patients, to have masks and he was concerned if everyone rushed to buy masks that healthcare workers would not have enough. Do you disagree with his concerns?

            See comment on infantilization of the American public.

            Do you think there would have been enough masks for the healthcare workers? If not what would you have done? Do you think telling the public to use a handkerchief mask would have sufficed for the public? Do you think that if Dr. Fauci had told the public that masks are important but please don’t buy them, please save them for the healthcare workers, instead, wear a handkerchief mask, the general public would have followed his advice?

            We’ll never know, will we? We were treated like three-year-olds.

            Another question to you is this: do you believe Dr. Fauci had malevolent intentions when he lied? Do you believe he intended to hurt the public? Or to help the healthcare workers?

            I honestly don’t know his intentions. I was not privy to discussions or his thinking. He had to know that more people would get infected than was necessary.

            A final question for you. Dr. Fauci has admitted he lied and he has stated his reason. Now he states, repeatedly, that it is important to wear masks and nd he models his belief by wearing a mask.

            Nobody on broadcast TV should be wearing a mask while pontificating. It makes lipreading impossible. Put it on before and after speaking, but the camera person can be well over 6 feet away with those new-fangled zoom lenses.

            Do you believe that if a person lies one time that then means you can never trust that person again no matter what? Even if they admit it and tell you why?

            Pretty much. I have to wonder at every other thing we are hearing. Particularly when they have insulted my intelligence by the lie and put me in additional danger by doing so.

            It is one thing when you are caught in a lie to admit it. That I respect. I won’t trust you after that, though. However, to go on national TV and tell everyone you lied, whatever your motivation, is simply unnecessary, and in my opinion, simply stupid. He totally blew his credibility by doing that.

            That is what I hear you saying but I could be wrong and misinterpreting your statements.

            I am pleased that what I said came across so clearly!

            Thank you for the discussion. 🙂

            Likewise!

          4. Hi Sharon, I understand what you mean by “infantilizing” the public but I have mixed feelings about whether Fauci’s actions had that result.

            As I understand things, the Trump administration received information about Covid in early January and took little to no action. In fact, Trump suggested the idea just letting the virus sweep through the country and ran that idea past Fauci who told Trump that doing so would mean the deaths of a large number of people. I will guess (just a guess) that Fauci was horrified at that idea. Because of his background, Fauci immediately understood the ramifications of the virus coming to the US — both the short-term and the long-term effects.

            I can only imagine that Fauci found himself in a very odd and increasingly uncomfortable place. He could see a disaster looming and yet could not get this administration interested in taking any precautionary measures. This situation was a genuine public health emergency that required broad actions and Trump was uninterested. Fauci knew the situation would ultimately involve the entire population and yet could not get the administration on board. I do not envy Fauci at all.

            So here we are. This is why I am not sure Fauci infantilized the public. Look at how the public has responded. When Covid came to Seattle and then New York, their governors closed down the states, sent people home and told them to wear masks. They had a terrible time but they did slow down the virus and now are slowly recovering. Currently we have states like Texas, Arizona and Florida whose governors have refused to close the states and mandate masks and their numbers are currently rising and heading straight through the roof. I heard this morning that Houston has run out of ICU beds. I am not convinced that people in those states don’t wear masks because of Dr. Fauci; I think they don’t wear masks because of Trump and his poor leadership. Only today — TODAY — have those governors started to really promote wearing masks.

            I see it more as a chicken and egg question: did Fauci infantilize the public? Or did Fauci realize the president and his followers were already infantilized and he had to make it simple because so many of them would not believe the truth even when it’s in front of their eyes. Maybe (just a theory) Fauci, because he had more personal contact with Trump and members of the administration, had an insight into Trump and his supporters that you and I don’t have.

            Even in this thread there are people doubting the usefulness of masks when the science overwhelmingly supports the use of masks. And more scientific support emerges everyday in support of masks.

            As a nurse who works in a hospital I am grateful that Dr. Fauci was concerned about healthcare workers and I am willing to cut him a break. We directly treat Covid-positive patients and need the masks. In mid-March, our governor (Maryland) sent people home and mandated masks and now we are on the other side of the area surge. My heart is breaking for the staff in the hospitals who are experiencing their surges now. As bad as we had it, and it was really tough for several weeks, they will have it worse because they do not have the support of their governors or the citizens of their states. I think that’s not only incredibly sad but outrageously irresponsible of their governors and, as a result, a horrible number of people will die.

            I think it’s a profound tragedy that a public health crisis has become a political issue. The virus does not care about politics or geography. The virus does not care if you believe in it or not; your beliefs will not save you from the virus.

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