Mason couldn’t help himself. The aroma overwhelmed him. He had to have a taste. It was just one bite; but it was so good. So he took another, and then another, and another, until it was almost gone. Then, he got sick as a dog. It wasn’t until much later and $519 worth of medical tests that Mason’s gastrointestinal problem was traced to the verbena he had been eating in the garden.
You see, Mason is my friend’s 2 year old honor golden retriever. And as you can imagine, the next time he went out he headed straight to what was left of the verbena. He couldn’t connect the dots between the verbena and feeling ill because the onset of his symptoms were too far removed in time from when he first started eating those delectable sprigs.
Legal problems start out the same way. The symptoms are often far removed from the first inklings that the problem even exists, or from the first smoking gun documents that are later used as evidence in the case.
According to organizational learning expert Peter Senge, “we learn best from experience but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.” That’s a huge statement.
In companies where decision making is highly specialized or fragmented, legal risk often does not become evident until it evolves into a claim, a default, or lawsuit and the people who tipped over the first domino are often unaware of how they contributed to the situation.
Take for example, the commissioned sales person who in the process of doing a favor for a new customer bypasses a credit check so that the sale can be booked before the end of the quarter. Meeting his quota and collecting commissions sure are sweet. But months later, when the deal goes south and the invoice goes unpaid because the customer is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, the sales person responsible for the deal is rarely in sight or held accountable for the misstep. Moreover, the commissions have long since been spent. As a result, the trigger-person doesn’t fully experience the consequences of their decision. The next time an opportunity presents itself they’ll be nibbling on the verbena again and more risk is injected into the process all over.
You can break the vicious cycle of the “Mason Effect” by evaluating problems in retrospect and looking for root causes, then constructively connecting the dots between cause and effect. I say “constructively” because the exercise should not be about allocating blame.
It should be a teaching moment, an opportunity for clarifying expectations and increasing accountability. More importantly, it is a teaching moment for the organization too. The company could come to realize, for example, that open ended commission structures and monthly sales target pressures encourage higher levels of risk taking and corner cutting that are counterproductive.
Stepping back and looking at the situation from both sides of the equation, affords an opportunity to connect the dots in a strategic and meaningful way. It increases transparency and accountability and improves the alignment between behavior and the company’s true business objectives. It not only reduces legal risk, it helps your business run smoother.