A strategy guide for student leaders by student leaders.
Building Effective Policies: Requirements and Planning
The policies or rules that you implement in your organization will influence the culture of your group and the actions of your members. Plan your policies well and you’ll ensure smooth operations for your initiatives.
The policies or rules that you implement in your organization will influence the culture of your group and the actions of your members. A well structured and well implemented set of policies will help you track which members are in good standing and assist with the smooth flow of daily operations. A poorly structured and poorly implemented set of policies will create discontent among your members and will make your daily operations difficult if not impossible.
Let’s begin by outlining exactly what makes a good policy:
Policies should be clear and succinct – Your team members need to understand what is required to follow the policy. Policies should not be marred by overly complex language or endless contingencies. Your members should understand both the punishments for violating policy and rewards, if relevant, for following policy.
Pollicies should be communicated and widely available – All policies should be explained during your initiation/orientation. They should also be in a location that’s easily accessible. This should be your first line of defense against a plea to ignorance.
Policies should be re-evaluated at least once a year – The effectiveness and relevancy of policies may change as your team evolves and you get new members. You should aim to re-evaluate your current policies and add or take away policies at least once a year, preferably at the beginning of the academic year. More on that below.
CS1: We once had an overzealous board member who was proficient at excel create an elaborate system of rules that tracked violations of policies by half points. We tested the system for a period. Once we realized that no one, including the creator, understood the rules, we quickly reverted to our old policies. Looking back, we should had many more review cycles before we tried to implement the system. Do not be swayed by fancy, complex, and elaborate systems. Keeping it simple is the key.
Incentives influence actions. Therefore, your first step is to assess what actions you want people to take. Additionally, what actions do you want people to avoid? How will this action or inaction assist with the smooth operation of your team? Take this example of an incentive influencing action:
There are two classes. In one class, the instructor states that 30% of the final grade will be based on participation. In the second class, the instructor states that a student’s entire grade will be determined by three exams. Which class do you think will have the higher rate of participation? Obviously, the former.
So, identify the goals you want to achieve with your policies and think about how to structure them to match those goals. What do you want people to do or not do in terms of attendance, punctuality, participation, fund-raising, etc? The fewer rules it takes to achieve your desired outcome, the better.
Lastly, consider the amount of commitment that your rule will require. The more effort it takes to comply with a rule, the less compliance you will receive. Too much effort over a long period of time can harm morale and decrease your membership.
Now that you’ve identified your desired outcomes, it’s time to think through your rewards and punishments. As a general rule, you’ll want to ensure that your sticks and carrots match up with the actions that you want taken or not taken. For instance, if someone has done some research for you that’s a part of their job description, a simple thank you may be enough. If someone has missed a meeting, deducting a small amount of points or simply asking them to be on time in the future will be enough. You can scale up or down from there as you see fit. You will run into issues when your incentives don’t match your desired actions. Understand the impact of a policy that’s too generous or stringent, and you’ll be able to tailor your changes from there. Test your policy, and if you experience pushback in the forms below, adapt. There are four major scenarios:
A small transgression with a large punishment.
A large transgression with a small punishment.
A small show of dedication with a large reward.
A large show of dedication with a small reward.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. If you reward a transgression, you’re promoting behavior that’s not beneficial to the team. If you punish a show of dedication, you’re dissuading behavior that’s beneficial to the team. Unless you’re a masochist, neither option is desirable.
Now, let’s move on to the scenarios. If you attack a small transgression with a large punishment, the individual will feel that they are being unfairly treated and that will cause discontent. They may spread this discontent by complaining to others, committing another transgression out of spite, or leaving the team. In addition, your member may be afraid to take risks in the future for fear of significant pushback.
If you punish a large transgression with a small punishment, then you’re essentially giving permission for the transgression. Or at the very least, you’re conveying the message that the transgression is not that serious. You may find that, in the future, people are more willing to commit transgressions because they know that the punishment will not be significant.
If you give a large reward for a small show of dedication, you’re setting false expectations. The person will feel either they didn’t deserve the reward which can sow some discontent or they will feel that they did deserve to be richly rewarded for small shows of dedication. In addition, if they communicate the reward that they received, you may find it harder in the future to convince people to do small things without providing a large reward.
If you give a small reward to a large show of dedication, you’re saying that the person isn’t valued. They will feel cheated given the amount of effort they have provided to the organization. This again will sow discontent and may demotivate the individual from contributing in the future. In addition, others may observe this and decide that it isn’t worth putting in great effort if they won’t see any benefit.
In the end, you need to realize that people do things for complex reasons that extend from both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. I’m not saying that developing a simple reward/punishment system will magically cause all the desired behaviors to appear or disappear. But, if you deliver your system accurately and without bias, I think you’ll discover more actions you want and fewer actions that you don’t.