By Logan Watts, PhD
When you hear the word compliance, what comes to mind?
For me, it’s the scene from the movie RoboCop (1987) where an early iteration of a law enforcement robot malfunctions in a boardroom demonstration. The robot states, “Please put down your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply.”The executive obeys. The robot steps forward aggressively, guns drawn, and continues, “You now have 15 seconds to comply.” The executives glance around the room nervously. "You now have 10 seconds to comply.”Chaos ensues as it becomes clear that the robot is out of control.
Seconds later, the machine charged with protecting innocent life destroys it.
Merriam-Webster.com defines compliance as “the act or process of complying to a desire, demand, proposal, or regimen or to coercion,” “conformity in fulfilling official requirements,” and “a disposition to yield to others.” The site further defines what it means to comply as, “to conform, submit, or adapt (as to a regulation or to another's wishes) as required or requested.”
If you read between the lines of these definitions, one underlying meaning of the word compliance becomes clear. Compliance involves the removal of another person’s autonomy by threat of punishment.
It’s easy to see why compliance is a word with some negative connotations. On one level, nobody likes having their autonomy removed. Organizations can also suffer from focusing too much on compliance as an operating mentality. Leaders who take thoughtful risks to question existing rules and norms can help elevate how the rest of us see the situation.
At the same time, most of us recognize that some loss of autonomy is essential for people to live and work together—what Rousseau called “the social contract.” If there are no rules, and no one to enforce the rules, another kind of chaos ensues.
This is the paradox of compliance. People crave autonomy, and at the same time they need rules. These two needs are always in tension. Ethical leaders know how to balance and navigate this tension. They not only know the rules; they know when simply attending to the rules is an inadequate strategy for making an ethical decision.
This paradox also highlights a fundamental difference between compliance and ethics—two words that are often conflated. A person can be compliant without being ethical. And one can be ethical without being compliant. This is a gray area being navigated by every corporate compliance program around the globe, and why many have rebranded themselves as offices of compliance and ethics. Compliance departments that were traditionally staffed by legal experts are now hiring “human experts”—professionals trained in the psychology of ethical decision making and ethical culture change.
So, what happens after the machine goes rogue in the movie RoboCop? The executives realize that it would be irresponsible to fully trust machines with the duties of law enforcement. And that’s when they get the idea to make RoboCop—a police officer who is half human and half machine. In many ways, RoboCop exemplifies the paradox of compliance. He possesses the robotic strength, stamina, and reflexes needed to hold people accountable to the law, without compromising the human judgment needed to navigate the gray areas.
Good compliance departments educate employees about the rules and enforce accountability. Great departments strategically lean in to the paradox of compliance, building a culture of ethics that drives organizational effectiveness.
The Ethics Advantage Team