Is Your Decorum Just Decor?

No doubt the political chatterati will dissect Joe Wilson's outburst for another day or so, but I want to examine it from an organizational development standpoint while trying to avoid any political inferences. So let's look at the 4 major actions that occurred and some of the OD questions we might want to consider for our own organizations.

1. An organization has standing rules about decorum during particular types of events.

Having a code of conduct, guidelines for professional practices, or statement of shared values is fairly common among all types of organizations. These statements of ethics are supposed to guide individual behavior and reflect the ethos of the community. In Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras found that the most successful companies were cult-like about their core ideology. And there's that old saying, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

2. An individual behaves in a manner that violates those rules.

One of the challenges organizations have with codes of conduct is what enforcement mechanism, if any, is put into place for the stated standards. Guidelines are nice, but when they are violated you often find the parties affected to be seeking rules that have teeth. If you are going to plant a stake in the ground, you need to do so after giving careful consideration to how violations will be treated, who will make that determination, and what type of appeals process should be provided.

3. The individual apologizes.

I think at least two interesting questions emerge at this stage: (1) is/isn't an apology enough? and (2) to whom should the apology be directed? We are human beings who make mistakes. Acknowledging the mistake apologizing to those affected, and then realigning our behavior with the stated values is a fairly common way of making amends.

But to whom should our apology be directed? In the case of Representative Wilson, his initial apology was directed to President Obama since the President was the person Wilson had interrupted. But the actual rule/code of conduct comes not from the President, but the House. So in some respects the House—the community with the standards—is perhaps the body that should ultimately receive the apology.

Organizations have to decide when to make exceptions to a rule or else abide by rigid zero tolerance policies that often mete our extreme punishments for minor first-time offenses. Being clear about what variables could influence when exceptions are granted can increase the likelihood that decisions/responses will be seen as fair.

Individuals need to take a broader view of the other parties to whom they are accountable and who might be affected by their behavior. What one does often affects many more then might initially be determined.

4. The organization rebukes the individual for the behavioral violation.

Degrees of responses/punishments are always options and can include simple statements of reprimands (You broke a rule. We noticed. Don't do it again.) to stated fines and punishments as often occurs in professional sports. Organizations often get criticized for encoring their stated standards (couldn't you just look the other way) which I always find misplace. If we don't enforce what we say we believe, we essentially are violating are own code of conduct. Could we look the other way? Sure. Should we look the other way? Rarely in my book.

Doing so teaches others that it's possible to violate standards without consequences (remember not all responses have to be extreme punishments). When your members have that understanding you will find it often yields damaging consequences down the road.