The Madness of Compliance

Posted by on Apr 1, 2014 | No Comments

dog wearing crown - english bulldog wearing king's crown sitting“Deferred to, agreed with, acquiesced in, who can flourish on such a daily diet of compliance?” the doctor asks. “To be curbed, stood up to, in a word thwarted, exercises the character, elasticates the spirit, makes it more pliant. It’s the want of such exercise that makes rulers rigid.”        – The Madness of King George

In our quest to find a movie we both like on Amazon Prime, my husband and I stumbled upon The Madness of King George Sunday night, and 20 minutes in, this quote jumped out at me like it was on fire.  Since the character is referring to King George, who did indeed (not just in the movie, but historically) go mad, what he’s really saying, “Who could help but lose their mind with all this compliance?”

I loved this for so many reasons (I could probably blog for a week on this quote alone).  Most of the time when we think about compliance in a work-context, we’re thinking about it in terms of results.  “Just do what I tell you to do”. All through the industrial age compliance ruled.  We built big factories that made it possible for us to mass produce widgets galore, only requiring people to follow a simple set of instructions over-and-over-and-over-and-over.  They just need comply and, voila!  – the results would be there.  Our families bred compliance.  Our schools were built on compliance.  Compliance is what made our country what it is today.

And then everything changed.

Thanks to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and a bunch of other smart guys working on the sly out of their parents’ garages, personal computers made most of those automated jobs obsolete.  And what computers didn’t negate, globalization did (2.8 million jobs went to China alone). And when those jobs went away, so did the promise of security (goodbye gold watches and pensions).  And with those computers came power-to-the-people, and now they could research, and email, and tweet, (and blog!), to their hearts’ content about everything that was going on within the four-walls of their organizations.  Everybody started wanting everything yesterday – and wanting more of it  – and wanting it to look new and different – and wanting it to be better than it was last week – and cost less.  With global teams came cultural differences and language differences, and time differences and…. And these new start-ups are popping out of the woodwork all over the place and life at work is getting more and more complex…and uncertain…stressful.

“Just do what I tell you to do” stopped working.  Why should the people do what you tell them to do?  They’re “knowledge workers”  they’re no longer paid to follow orders, they’re required to think for themselves.  There’s no security.  You’re wanting them to do more for less.  If they’re talented and smart, they’ll simply research for (and apply for) other jobs on your dime.  Or they’ll start their own company with a motley crew of other talented and smart people from around the globe while sitting in the jammies at home.  If they’re not talented they’ll stick around.  And surf the internet.  Because they can.  It’s sheer bedlam in the workforce.  If only we could make people commit, to do their very best, to go all-in because we said so!  If only they’d comply!

Both Dan Pink (in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us) and Seth Godin (Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?) have done some great work in exposing the downfall of our compliance culture and provide some very compelling ideas around motivating ourselves and others in this unwieldy world.  I’ve also given a lot of thought about this issue from an organizational and leadership standpoint, but until I heard this …King George quote, I had never heard anyone talk about how the compliance we seek could potentially be our personal downfall.    For if everyone around us is simply doing what we ask them to do, without question, without push-back, without adding anything new to the conversation, how rich would our lives really be?  How nimble our thinking?  How certain our values?  How strong our beliefs?  If they were never tested?

I remember a psychologist-friend once explained to me that it is through our relationships with others that our “stuff” comes up.  When we’re hanging out by ourselves, and we get to make all the decisions and nobody challenges us, it may feel easy, but we don’t grow.  We don’t learn.  We don’t overcome our “stuff”, it just stays there and festers.  And while engaging in the discussions and negotiations and the endless back-and-forth around why something is important and why it matters can be uncomfortable, and tedious, and even sometimes downright annoying, it is these very exchanges that make us who we are.  They make our best self possible.  They enrich our thinking, increase our ability to empathize and be compassionate, to influence.  To lead.

But then again (as my parents can attest), I’ve never been big on “Just do it because I said so!”

©OnStage Leadership, 2013;  Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop.  If you found this helpful, interesting, thought-provoking, or inspiring please “recommend”, “Like” and share.  It is only through your generosity that we can reach those who may find it valuable too.




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