Business Leadership Culture Workplace

Wagging the Dog

October 30, 2019
Jeremy Nulik


Wagging the Dog

Commands Are Not Control

You cannot be a self-respecting Brooklyn hipster and not have a fur baby. It’s a thing. They are as essential as flannel and irony. So what happens when you want to take your doggo to the designated park for an Instagram photo shoot? You hop on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Subway of course.

But not so fast. Before you take your four-legged buddy on the train, you must find a suitable container. You must do so to adhere to the MTA policy regarding animals on the train:

“No person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.”

It turns out that a small contingency of patrons complained about the dogs. There were unwanted fluids. There were kerfuffles between dogs and humans. Oh, and the feces. So. Much. Feces.

In response to complaints, MTA did what any upstanding organization would do. They made a rule. And that rule is clear isn’t it? It uses words like “no” and “any” and “in a manner.” Those words leave no wiggle room.

However, that is not at all the case. Around the time that the new policy was enacted, there was also an Instagram account created, @bagdogs, which celebrates the manner in which patrons have found a way to game the policy. Oh, a “suitable container?” How about an Ikea bag?

large dog in an IKEA bag on New York subway white dog in bag on New York subway pug in bag on subway

All suitable containers. @bagdogs Instagram

Not only is the policy’s intention not being realized, but the people who have found a way around the policy are being lauded.

This should feel oddly familiar and somewhat uncomfortable state of affairs if you are charged with leading an organization. How many of us have responded to complaints or chaos with policy? The most common manifestations are your brand standards, policies regarding sick leave, social media guidelines. They are even as micro as that passive-aggressive handwritten sign on the refrigerator asking for people to not consume food they did not bring.

With policy, you now have created a mechanism that must be enforced. Your goal is compliance. And usually the best you can hope for is resentment. Thus, why it is that you find your policy mocked (see dogs in bags). Why is this? Because commands are not control.

Human beings, the ones who make up both your team and your customers, are not automatons. That is why commands are not control. Every set of policies that has not been gamed will be gamed because humans make choices based on their needs and not on policies.

The biggest point is that mechanical solutions to human problems rarely prevail. But there is a way to start to create coherence around a set of understood values, the spirit of the policies that have been created.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of mockery, there is hope. It starts with aligning humans behind a common purpose. Try this:

  1. Become curious about what the humans need. Work to discover what need is being fulfilled through the mockery.
  2. Get in touch with the spirit or intention of the policy. If the policy or standard is old, this can take some time because the original idea has been obscured.
  3. Create the conditions for the users to enact agency on the shaping of the policy. Give the humans a chance to tell stories about the behaviors they value and why they value them. This can allow for mutual respect.
  4. Get out of the prison warden business. Being a leader does not mean being an enforcer. It can mean creating an environment by which humans can challenge one another.

There is more, of course. And this is but a beginning. But without the exploration and articulation of a common purpose, there is little hope that the intentions of a policy will be thoroughgoing.

Top Article Photo: