The Yes Blog

How to Avoid "Drowning" Your Business: A Policy Lesson From Near-Drowning in the News

A championship swimmer nearly drowned while professional lifeguards watched, and there are critical lessons for you as a business leader if you don’t want your company to drown while your people look on.

What’s a near-drowning got to do with your company policy? Glad you asked…

Story Time

Here’s the story in brief.

  1. Immediately after a synchronized swimming performance at the Swimming World Championships, a swimmer fainted in the water and sank to the bottom.
  2. The lifeguards recognized the emergency.
  3. They did not act to save her. (Thankfully, the swimmer’s coach also recognized the emergency, and when she saw the lifeguards were not going to rescue her, she jumped in to save her swimmer.)

Holy cow! What in the world is wrong with those lifeguards?!?! You’d think that at the World Championships of swimming, they’d have some professional guards who know how and when to respond to a swimmer in trouble.

Deeper Look (pun intended)

There’s nothing wrong with those guards. There’s everything wrong with the “company policy” that prohibited them from acting as an unconscious swimmer slowly sank to the bottom of the pool.

Those with the authority granted by “company policy” to approve life-saving action were no longer paying attention to what was happening in the pool. In fact, their primary responsibilities required that they turn their attention to something else entirely. If those with the authority to approve action were doing their jobs (and they were), then there is no way they could have known that action was needed. They weren’t watching the swimmer anymore — or even looking at the pool. The guards were watching. That was their primary responsibility. They simply weren’t able to act without a signal from those who were no longer watching.

They were the judges. The performance was complete. Their primary responsibility in the moment of crisis was to consider, record, and communicate a score for the performance. And so they did not see the swimmer who was destined to die if they did not signal the lifeguards that they may act to save the swimmer.

You see, in order to prevent over-zealous lifeguards from interrupting a swimming performance in action if they mistakenly believed a swimmer was in distress, a “company policy” was written that the judges alone are permitted to assess whether a swimmer needed rescue. Only when the judges deemed that there was an emergency could a lifeguard act — as a matter of policy.

So a near-drowning was averted only by someone who was not bound by those rules, or who was willing to flout them.

Now, the governing body of these events is reconsidering this unwise “company policy” and reprioritizing their risk management.

Do you want your company to be dependent on people who are not bound by your rules or who are willing to flout them?

Company policy — you may already have gleaned — I’ve put in quotes because many companies (is yours among them?) have policies in place intended to solve some small problem. And lurking under the water’s surface of those policies are unintended consequences of potentially giant proportions.

Questions for you to ask about your company policies

How confident are you that the company policies you have in place:

  • Align people’s primary responsibilities with their attention with their authority?
  • Rank risk mitigation appropriately such that you’re not risking a dollar to potentially save a penny?
  • Don’t handcuff people you’re counting on to have their hands (and their minds) free?

An invitation

It can be very difficult to see through your own intentions to reveal possible unintended consequences. Human behavior’s alignment with the good can be fragile, tenuous. Don’t let your structures interfere.

If you’d like to investigate the potential that your company policies create a potential future drowning, let’s talk. We’d be happy to hear from you and to share some insights.

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