Do People Resist Policies or Do Policies Fail?

Do people resist policies or do policies fail? The answer is YES to both. Often times there is pushback on policies from the “ground level”. On the other hand when policies are launched they are expected to be caught and implemented by associates automatically without formal introduction or aid.

Why people resist policies and why policies fail

Before we review the failure of polices and why this happens, let’s look at a model that reflects the common structure that is used to create policies.


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Does the above structure work? It may on occasion but a far more effective method would be more cyclical like we see in The Impact of Internal Communication Lapses in Organizational Systems. A form of analysis is commonly the basis of policy creation but many times there are issues on all levels. Leadership commonly views policy creation as a one and done activity which leaves no room for evolution. 


ANALYSIS: Issues are not properly analyzed because those on the ground level are not being consulted and/or the data collected from the ground level is misinterpreted due to lack of understanding of duties and execution on the ground level.

RATIONALE: The rationale for the policy is often based on the business need not the needs of the associates to meet the business need.

STRATEGY: Strategies are usually based on the impact the issue has on the revenue of the business and leaves out the impact the issue has on the members of the organization .

POLICY: Policies commonly become rigid and linear. Policies are developed on the high level but are not equipped for execution or evolution.

IMPLEMENTATION: The policy hits the ground level and creates a shockwave and a knee jerk reaction that was not anticipated or prepared for in the policy creation stage.

Another piece to this issue is that associates are not brought into the decision making process and the policy has no built in fail-safe methods or room for evolution. The policy only has a live or die system engrained into its structure when there should be an anticipated evolutionary stage. The policy will be subject to forced evolution regardless if the policy falls short.

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Consider this real life example of policy failure in the case of anti-bullying policies in the US. 

Since Montana passed its school bullying bill this year, every state in the country now has a law on the books addressing this pervasive and problematic form of peer harassment. So it’s time to take a victory lap, right? Maybe not. The report “illustrates the gap that can emerge between the intentions of a law and the effectiveness of its implementation via policy and regulations. There are still many school districts in the U.S. that have failed to institute policy protections, even in states which require them by law”. – Evle Blad

This scenario is unfortunately typical within organizations. The gap between policy theory and policy implementation is commonly unknown, misrepresented and/or under estimated. The determination of not only the policy but also what type of feedback loop will most effectively police the policy must be determined in the policy creation process.

2 responses to “Do People Resist Policies or Do Policies Fail?”

  1. Derek C. Ashmore Avatar

    Very well written and thought out. However, there is more to the story behind policies, why they get created, why they succeed or fail, and why people support or subvert them.

    Maybe your experience is different, but problems cause policies to be created more than anything else. Unwanted events cause the analysis and strategy you speak of to happen with the intent to prevent future occurrences of whatever the problem was. I’d put another layer on the bottom of your pyramid.

    When policies fail, it happens because they have unintended consequences or are so poorly crafted that they don’t prevent the problem for which they are intended. More often, it’s the unintended consequences. They can’t be implemented and still enable people to fulfill their obligations. Sometimes they contradict other rules our policies people are expected to follow. Sometimes following them creates other problems.

    I’ve heard at several executives complain that people are “using the process against them”. I call this malicious obedience. I marvel at the hypocrasy of this complaint. If people can do this, it means that the policies have unintended consequences and management should take ownership and correct those policies. Management rarely does this as they can’t admit error, which leads to policies that aren’t supported. It also leads to morale issues where people stop caring what the result is and just work to survive.

    Thanks for your thought provoking blog post.

  2. Jim McGee Avatar

    I’ve been a fan of “Star Trek” over the years and one of the things that Star Trek makes clear is the huge gap between the captain saying “Make It So” and the crew and ship’s ability to carry out the order effectively. No one seems to be have the time or the inclination to think through the details of how policy connects to activity to become comfortable that the policy can, in fact, BE implemented in any reasonable way within any reasonable time frame.

    To me, “unintended consequences” area almost always consequences that were blindingly obvious. They are unintended only in the sense that those promoting a policy seem to think that not looking is the most effective way to avoid something bad happening. It’s immensely frustrating to watch it happen over and over.

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