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What Dressing Appropriately and Agility Have in Common

In 2009, Mary Barra, now CEO of GM, decided to overhaul the company’s 10-page dress code. The new dress code was distilled from 10 pages into two words: Dress Appropriately. 

What Dressing Appropriately and Agility Have in Common

The new policy was met with confusion from her staff. They contended: surely there will be people who don’t know what appropriate means. Are we really going to trust our staff to meet this policy on their own? What do I do now that there is no official, written policy in place to enforce appropriate dress? 

One manager reached out to Barra to ask, what do I do now that I now have people wearing jeans who sometimes must meet with clients in professional dress?

Barra’s answer: talk to the teams and see what they think.

Now instead of having to rely on pages of written policy to direct everyone’s actions, people had to use their heads to determine for themselves what appropriate meant.

Her decision and the response she got from it led her to reflect on the topic of empowering leaders and teams, which is a cornerstone of agility. Barra says:

“What I realized is that you really need to make sure your managers are empowered—because if they cannot handle ‘dress appropriately’, what other decisions can they handle? And I realized that often, if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them.”

“But if you let people own their policies themselves—especially at the first level of people supervision—it helps develop them. It was an eye-opening experience, but I now know that these small little things change our culture powerfully. They weren’t the only factor, but they contributed significantly.”

Barra’s thoughts echo what can happen when you disempower teams, as well as what can be gained when you empower them. 

Disempowered teams, constrained by overly prescriptive policies and micro-managed work, end up doing what they are told. They’ve learned that their own thoughts and ideas don’t count because they will be instructed every step of the way. The overly prescriptive policy prescribed by an outside source takes away the ability to think and contribute in new ways. The result: disengagement, mediocrity, and fear of breaking the rules. People will do just enough to check the boxes, hence they “live down” to the policies and procedures prescribed to them. 

It’s a different story when teams are empowered. When leaders make their intent clear – when they explain what the goal is and why – and allow teams to work within those boundaries, a different phenomenon occurs. This approach correctly assumes that the people closest to the work have the best knowledge to determine how they achieve goals. By providing an overarching goal and allowing for people with the right knowledge to determine how to meet the goals, leaders play an active part in accelerating not only decision-making but making the right decisions. 

By providing a request to “dress appropriately”, Barra was sending a message that she trusted her staff to make the right decisions. When people are forced to use their creativity and problem-solving skills to meet goals, they have a sense of ownership and accountability. They become engaged, motivated, and best-case scenario, passionate about what they are doing. They become leaders. This creates a win-win situation for all involved – employees have a sense of purpose and ownership and are using their energy to contribute to organizational success. 

Let’s face it: some policies are necessary to keep us on track. But an over-prescription of policy can cause us to lose focus on what our purpose is, and it is a sure-fire way to create a culture of mindless followers.

Incited by Barra’s advice, the manager whose team was wearing jeans posed the question to his team: what does appropriate dress mean for us? The team swarmed on that question to come up with a solution: they dressed like their clients on days that they visited and stashed a change of clothes in their desks that they could put on if needed. 

And they didn’t need a 10-page document to do that.

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