In March last year, when the reality of a global pandemic first hit us, we kept hearing the word ‘unprecedented’ as a way to describe how our lives had changed. Now, 18 months later, some of the changes we’ll face in the next few months are just as unprecedented. For example, we’ll be facing the prospects of ‘living with COVID’, rolling out vaccines to vulnerable groups, opening international borders, stopping unvaccinated people from harming others, and so on. Make no mistake – this new phase of coping with COVID-19 brings yet another level of uncertainty and disruption.
Many leaders will face new challenges with their teams, who will be thrust into situations that aren’t in any rule book.
Take a leaf out of Nordstrom’s rule book.
The US department store Nordstrom is famous for its customer service standards, with many stories of staff who went well above and beyond expectations to make customers happy. Long before social media gave customers the power to criticise, complain, or commend a business, Nordstrom made superior customer service a cornerstone of their brand.
My favourite story is about a staff member who allowed a customer to return a set of car tyres for a refund – even though Nordstrom doesn’t sell tyres! I first heard that story when I was a young manager in the 1990s, and I’m still telling it a generation later!
But this is not a customer service story.
From the outside, Nordstrom excels at customer service. But not every organisation has a ‘The customer is always right’ attitude – and that’s OK.
I prefer the internal story behind this, which is about building judgement – and that’s something every organisation can do.
Nordstrom staff are not just allowed or encouraged to use their judgement; they are explicitly told to do so.
On their first day at work, all employees receive a card summarising the company’s rules. It says:
Rule #1: Use best judgement in all situations.
There will be no additional rules.
Now, of course, that’s not the full extent of Nordstrom’s onboarding process. They do include everything they have to do as part of their corporate responsibility. But they give this idea of building judgement a prominent role – and they make sure all leaders and managers support it.
Is this too big a step for you?
Nordstrom runs a rigorous and comprehensive recruitment program, so the employees on their first day are already among the best. So their managers can be more confident in allowing them to exercise their judgement.
This is too big a step for many teams, who don’t have this level of trust yet. But you don’t have to do this in one leap; build it step by step.
The next time a team member asks you for your help, before you offer any advice, imagine saying, ‘I trust your judgement’ and letting them do whatever they think best. You don’t have to know what they will do, but you trust them to do the right thing.
Keep in mind you’re only imagining saying this. If you can actually say it confidently, go ahead and do so. It will make your life (and theirs) better immediately, and reinforces your trust in their judgement.
But sometimes you know it would be inappropriate – and possibly even negligent – to simply assume you could trust their judgement. If that is the case, of course you address their immediate need by pitching in and advising them or helping them. But after helping them, consider why you couldn’t trust their judgement this time. Usually, it’s because they don’t know what to do, don’t know how, or something is getting in the way.
Use this as a development opportunity, and work together to do what it takes so the next time they have a similar request, you can confidently say, ‘I trust your judgement’.
This takes time, but it’s a good investment.
It’s sometimes easier and faster to do a challenging task yourself instead of guiding – and trusting – one of your team members. And it’s even more tempting to do this for important tasks with serious consequences. But if you always do these tasks yourself, you become a bottleneck in the system, and your team members never grow.
It takes time, effort, and mutual respect to build this judgement with your team members – but it will pay off even in the short term, and is absolutely essential if you want to thrive in a fast-changing, uncertain future.