SUMMARY: This approach is intended as an alternative to coming up with plans and solutions that we ask the employee to comply with, such as accommodation plans, return to work strategies or conflict resolution approaches, and instead asking the employee to actively engage in developing a plan, strategy or approach that they are willing and able to commit to over the long term.
Commitment over compliance may be an effective strategy for success that can be adopted by anyone who manages people, including employees experiencing mental health issues. This concept is about respecting an individual enough to help them commit to their own success and allowing them to lead the way by telling you how they can achieve that success.
Even when they may have a mental illness?
Mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety-related disorders can erode self-confidence in even the most accomplished professional. While these illnesses rarely take away any previously existing skill or talent, they may make the person feel less competent. Navigating the healthcare system to access treatment may in some cases also contribute to an employee’s feelings of disempowerment when recovery is a difficult journey.
During recovery or when the mental health condition is manageable, it can be extremely helpful to give back a level of control and responsibility to the employee by involving them in committing to their own success and wellness at work. Time after time, this approach has been experienced as a “breath of fresh air” or “a new lease on life” or “a fresh start” as they focus not on what they cannot do, but rather on what they can do. When we set up the dynamic of commitment rather than compliance, we support the employee to consider approaches that allow them to imagine their own success.
But I’m the boss
An initial reaction to this concept may be that you are giving away your authority and responsibility, but this is not the intention. As a leader, your job is to manage the outcomes and objectives of your organization. If the command and control model is working for you, then why would you change? The problem is that today, this method of leadership can often be problematic, especially when you are faced with employees experiencing emotional distress or mental health issues.
There are situations that demand command and control for safety and effectiveness. Cardiac arrest procedures, theatre of war, and a fire scene are examples where taking time to hear what your employees think would be ineffective. In each of these workplaces, however, nurses, soldiers and firefighters can benefit from an increase in a sense of their own power to control their workday outcomes. What commitment over compliance does is recognize that while you need to ensure WHAT is accomplished, the employee who is doing the work may have a say in deciding HOW it is accomplished.
Even heavily regulated processes that leave little room for choice can benefit from the commitment over compliance approach. For example, one man who demonstrated the safe use of equipment was governed by Canadian Standards Association (CSA) guidelines for the process. For reasons we will not go into here, the process, which included physically touching those who were learning to use the equipment, was no longer acceptable for him. This individual was tasked with coming up with an alternative that allowed him to do his job in a way that was consistent with the CSA standard and was effective in teaching the safe use of equipment. It took him only one night to come up with a solution. This was a man who was recovering from a mental illness and had been out of work for over one year. His solution was not only consistent with the standard but ended up being adopted by others who did the same job. This is not an exceptional case.
In return to work or stay at work cases where the employee has come up with innovative and effective ways to accomplish the tasks of their job, despite any disability, it is often more successful and sustainable.
Of course, it may sometimes be necessary to manage expectations when a request is not practical or reasonable. By coaching the employee to help arrive at solutions that are acceptable for your work situation, you are still getting commitment, but with some tweaking. To help you with this, consider using the Before You Say No, Ask Why approach.
If I do it for one, then I’ll have to do it for everyone
You may be concerned that allowing employees to come up with their own approach may open a floodgate of requests by other employees wanting the same treatment. This is much less of an issue if you manage the approach so that it reduces the chance of putting anyone else at a disadvantage. This can be done by asking how co-workers will respond to the possible solution that is offered by the employee. A receptionist suggested that someone cover for them at the reception desk when they were upset or crying. When asked how their co-workers might respond, they said their co-workers were already busy and would probably feel this was unfair. When asked what they could do about that, they thought for a moment and responded that since their coworkers hated filing, and they personally found filing calming, perhaps they could do filing for the employee who covered the reception desk.
This not only had the effect of helping the co-workers to see the solution as fair, but they eventually began to request the receptionist swap roles because they had filing that needed to be done. What could have been a source of conflict ended up being mutually beneficial.
And what else?
When we are upset for any reason – in crisis, stressed out, or experiencing a mental health issue – our minds are less clear. For this reason, it is important to be patient and thorough when exploring what is needed to allow for successful completion of the work. The question “And what else…?” can be helpful in supporting the employee to consider all possible solutions. In addition, in a state of emotional distress, what is top of mind may or may not be the most relevant or important factor in success. By digging deeper and asking what else might be needed, we improve our chances at getting at the critical factors to success.
Many people recognize that negativity can be a symptom of depression and anxiety-related disorders, but react defensively or feel frustrated by the expression of these thoughts. Some use the approach of trying to apply logic to an emotional issue by arguing the “facts” as they see them or simply telling the distressed individual that they are wrong. As I am sure you can guess, this rarely works to improve the situation. By using a technique referred to as ‘restorying’ we can help to gently change the way the situation is described to a “story” that offers some hope for moving beyond the problem or negativity.
For example, one person who continually talked about how everyone in the office was mean and out to get them, was brought back to a time where this was not true. This was important so that they could imagine that time (when their co-workers were pleasant with them) existing once again. They were then helped to see that maybe their co-workers had developed a wrong impression of them and that this could change. When we restoried from “everyone hates me” to the idea of changing people’s minds about them, we were able to move forward to new approaches.
Commitment over compliance involves a specific skill set of helping people to arrive at their own solution for success at work. It takes patience and a mindset that can withstand not being in total control throughout the process. The payoff can be huge. It can include a solution that only that employee could have thought of or a solution that you could never have demanded in the first place due to issues of confidentiality, labour laws or some other boundary. It can free the employee to consider personal, health, family and workplace factors that may impact their success and commit to modifying any or all of these. It can allow them to imagine their own success and work towards achieving it. And importantly, it can help them realize your support for their success is genuine.
Source: Baynton, M. Resolving Workplace Issues. (2011) Waterdown, Ontario. Self-Published.