When to Get Cooperation and When to Get Compliance


I facilitated a workshop recently on the topic of “Leading Change,” and a senior hospital leader spoke up with a question:

“You’ve been talking about gaining cooperation and commitment from people to change,” she said. “But when has that effort gone too far? When do you just need to tell people, ‘This is how it’s going to be. Get on board, or else?’ When is compliance more appropriate than cooperation?”

It’s a question that resonated with me. Several weeks ago, a simple email request went out to all of our employees: Share an article on your social media platforms. Only a very small percentage of people actually did it. Later, this came up in conversation with the senior leader of another company.

“If I ran your company, everyone would have shared that article,” he told me. “You just need to tell them to get it done by a certain date—or else.”

In other words, play the authority card.

But how and when should you play the authority card? We’re not dealing with human doings who will just do what they’re told on a long-term basis. We’re dealing with human beings who need to be in a condition to cooperate or comply.

Here are three ideas I suggested to the hospital leader:

  1. Make it safe for people to resist. Most people hide from change and commitment because they don’t want to have to deal with the discomfort. But if naysayers and avoiders are hiding in the woods, you can’t communicate or negotiate with them. After we made the request that our team members share the article, several of them approached me expressing skepticism about the value of doing it. They wondered out loud about how it fit into their priorities and whether the content of the article was supportive of our direction. Do people around you always feel safe saying what they really think?
  2. Set clear performance expectations. An executive recently told me he thought he was losing his internal influence at his company. “I told someone in our marketing department that the logo on our website needed to print more clearly on paper, but it’s been several weeks, and the logo still hasn’t been changed!”

    So I asked him, “Does everyone in the marketing department have clear goals for quality, stakeholder satisfaction and operational excellence? If so, should this be more about alignment to goals than it is about doing what you tell them to do?”
  3. Know when to be supportive and when to be directive. If someone can and will do something, it doesn’t need to be mandated. It just needs to be discussed and encouraged for shared ownership. But when someone can’t or won’t perform at an acceptable level, ultimately a direct response is needed. Direct accountability focuses on specific behaviors expected and clarifies the consequences for non-performance. It also ensures timely follow-up to see that expectations were met. For leaders who are naturally supportive, this can be difficult to do. The key is shifting your mindset to realize that being directive doesn’t equal being mean. Directive is being assertive and clear. When people can’t or won’t, they often need to be told.

So is gaining compliance an acceptable path if cooperation isn’t happening? Sure. The important thing is to prioritize cooperation over compliance, because cooperation is much more sustainable.

In hindsight, we should have discussed the email request with our team before it went out. We would have collaborated with them on the timing, method, and how it aligns to company and personal goals. Maybe the authority card would have gotten it done, but the collaborative approach would have gotten people engaged about doing it.

Do you need to play the authority card right now… or should you resist playing it at all?

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