Managing By Cliches, Part 4: Mean What You Say

When advising management teams that are considering new policies, I always ask them to consider one question: “If your star employee violated this policy, what would you do?”

One of BYU's star players violated a sacred university rule -- and the school stuck by the rule, to its short-term detriment and long-term acclaim

If the answer I get back is hemming and hawing and ultimately a sheepish, “Well, honestly, we’d probably look the other way or give him another chance,” it becomes clear that, at the very least, they shouldn’t state the policy in absolute terms (i.e., no use of the words “never,” “always,” and the like).  Better that they have a vague policy — or no policy at all — than that they have a policy that they know they’ll never really enforce (or won’t enforce for everyone, in any case).

To reduce it to its simplest element, it’s all about “meaning what you say.” If you write “never” or “always,” you better really mean “never” or “always.”  If not, your credibility (both legally and culturally) may never recover.  Quite remarkably, a story emerged from the sports world that illustrated the “mean what you say” proviso quite dramatically.  This was, of course, the story of the BYU star basketball player being suspended from the team due to an honor code violation, on the eve of one of sports’ biggest extravaganzas – the NCAA basketball tournament.

BYU Shows It Means What It Says

All students attending Brigham Young University (BYU) are aware of the sanctity of the school’s honor code.  In this particular case, one of the men’s basketball team’s star players, Brandon Davies, violated the honor code by having relations with his girlfriend.  How did the school find out about the violation? Apparently, by Davies turning himself in.  How did the school react? Did it look the other way and pretend they never heard Davies’ story? Did they consider how this would hurt their chances in the upcoming tourney, after a very impressive season — one in which the basketball program’s profile rose considerably? Did they try to find a way to rationalize away Davies violation, so that he could play without disrupting the team’s potential march to glory?

No.  Rather than take any of the more expedient paths available to them, BYU stood by its word (in the form of the honor code) and suspended Davies for the remainder of the season and post-season — to the shock of (and ultimately to the acclaim of) the sports world.

Lesson For Other Organizations

Short term, BYU is likely to be hurt — at least in terms of basketball results — suffering the consequences of playing without one of their stars.  Long term, there’s no doubt that they have gained greater recognition for their principled stance — ultimately furthering the purposes of the university.

How many of our own organizations — and our policies — could withstand such scrutiny?  How many say “never” or “always” and really mean it?  Let’s celebrate those that do … and let’s allow BYU’s example to serve as inspiration for truly meaning what we say (policy-wise and otherwise).

One response to “Managing By Cliches, Part 4: Mean What You Say

  1. “What would you do if your star employee violated this policy?” That’s an excellent question to remember and to ask before implementing a policy.

    I am happy to hear that BYU is being commended for upholding its honor code. Davies as well should be commended for turning himself in. It is refreshing to see someone who is likely a role model be accountable for his actions… before getting caught.

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