Pointers on Setting Compliance Goals

Today we return to the compliance officer bookshelf. I just began reading Get It Done, a newly released book by business professor Ayelet Fishbach, that examines how people can motivate themselves to change their behavior. The first chapter alone raises excellent points about how to set goals that people want to achieve — a subject worth considering if your job is to encourage better corporate conduct.

Fishbach’s main point about setting goals is that too often, people confuse the goal itself with the means you use to achieve that goal. When you emphasize the former, the goal feels like an aspirational thing that people want to achieve. When you emphasize the latter, the goal feels like a chore and suddenly people are a lot less enthused about taking the necessary steps to achieve it.

“Powerful goals feel worth the price tag — they pull you toward your greatest wish,” Fishbach writes. “And in order to pull you, a goal has to feel more like an aspiration and less like a chore.” 

Did you hear the penny drop in your head when you read those words? Because it certainly dropped in mine. Consider:

  • Aspirational: “We will run a clean business and never cheat to close a sale.”
  • Chore: “Do not offer or pay bribes to foreign government officials.” 

I’ve been around sales executives long enough to know that they love that first, aspirational goal. The best sales executives want to prove that they won the sale and bested their competitors through their own innate ability. Victory like that validates their self-worth — and let’s be honest, lots of sales execs also have a pretty titanic sense of their self-worth. 

Get It DoneThat second framing of the anti-corruption goal, however, is decidedly less thrilling. You, the compliance officer, are telling sales executives what to do. You’ve converted the goal into a chore, and people are naturally less enthusiastic about doing their chores. This is true by the time you’re four years old and continues on through life. 

Fishbach splendidly illustrates that point, too. Imagine that you’re eager to go to a fancy restaurant, where you’ll pay $15 for a cocktail. Most of us would accept that high price, she says, because the cocktail is part of the goal: a nice dinner out. But we’ll drive around the block six times before paying $15 for valet parking at that same restaurant, because parking is not part of the goal; parking is part of the means you use to achieve it.

“In general,” she writes, “we want to invest our resources in the goal, not in the means.” 

Implications for Compliance Programs

Fishbach’s point about goals, and how to frame them for maximum motivational effect, is important to compliance professionals because it helps us understand the difference between ethical values and priorities versus policies and procedures. 

The goal should be the ethical value the company wants to uphold. For example:

  • We will not cheat to win at business.
  • We will not harass coworkers and colleagues.
  • We will keep confidential data as safe as possible.

Goals like that are aspirational. They’re also clear enough to resonate with people’s moral sensibilities (most people want to play fairly, be collegial, and be careful with important things); but still abstract enough that they don’t turn into chores that people need to do. 

From there, a compliance program certainly can (and should) backfill those goals with specific policies and procedures to support those goals. Policies and procedures help employees understand how to achieve those goals, rather than just sit around fantasizing about how wonderful the goals are. But it’s important to keep goals simple and aspirational, so employees are in the right frame of mind — an enthusiastic state of mind — to consume those policies and procedures. 

Fishbach also stresses that, ideally, goals should be expressed affirmatively: “Do” goals, she says, rather than “Do Not” goals. Do goals are exciting, and inspire people to push for better performance. Do Not goals can be more urgent (“do not harass coworkers, or you’ll be fired”), but they don’t inspire people toward better behavior — they drive people to a close adherence of the rules. 

Of course, a close adherence to the rules can be quite useful for corporate compliance programs. I just worry that when a company emphasizes Do Not goals too much, employees will ultimately end up suspending all exercise of good judgment and cling to the rules in every instance. That has risks too. As Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. The same is true of compliance programs.

The Bottom Line on Goals

I would recommend Get It Done to any compliance officer who enjoys thinking about the human elements of a compliance program, and soon enough I’ll post a review of the full book. 

Meanwhile, the first chapter alone gives you thought-provoking insights about how to state goals so that people are motivated to change their behavior. Driving people to change their behavior is what compliance programs are supposed to do; so the points Fishbach raises are immediately relevant to messaging campaigns you might want to develop, or talking points you can give to the CEO or other senior executives as they try to inspire your workforce too. 

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