Don’t Make it Mandatory

A manager stands in a room he expected to be full of people, but there are only a few seats filled for the training. Since no one showed up, he cancels the event and walks away frustrated with a single, rather common sentence in his head: “But I made it mandatory!”

Everyone has been in this situation more than once in one of three roles:

  1. You’re the manager who had no one arrive to your planned event.
  2. You’re one of the uncomfortable few who showed up and either wanted the training or wanted to be seen at the training.
  3. You’re one of the people who didn’t show up.

I usually take my time to get to a point, but I can’t seem to do it with this one, so here it is up front: Stop making things mandatory.

I can tell you from within an organization that loves making things mandatory that it doesn’t help as much as you’d think. Doing so forces most people to choose between that session you want and, well, just about anything else.

– If you plan it during working hours, they have to choose between you and the work they’re being paid to do.

– Plan it during lunch, and people have to choose between you and food. You’ll usually lose this one.

– Make it mandatory too early in the morning, and the parents have to choose between their morning routine with children and your training.

– Make it after hours, and you’re contending with second jobs, college, and again, family.

– Make something mandatory on the weekend, and just prepare to be let down. Oh, and plan on people holding that against you for quite some time, whether they show up or not.

When you’re creating a requirement that pulls people away from their real jobs, families, or other goals, what good comes from adding to the stress by marking them absent from the list on your clipboard or in your head? Remember, the unspoken other half of “it’s mandatory” is “show up, or else.” I rarely see a win here.

Not everything we try to make mandatory needs to be, but it’s the first and most immediate way we have to say something is important to us and we want everyone to hear it.

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“We’re going to have training every week, and I know everyone will benefit from it since I have the best of intentions. To make sure people get all this great information in my head, I’m going to make it mandatory. Everyone will show up. I will teach, they will learn, and then we’ll all go smartly about our business.”

This might sound overly simplified when I actually write it, but please understand that this exact line of logic is in someone’s head right now, and sooner or later, it will be in yours. When this happens, try to recognize it and stop yourself from making yet another meeting mandatory. Instead, try to make it valuable.

And yes, I understand that it’s already valuable to you. Make it valuable to your audience. If we take the above example of training, I understand that we can make it mandatory for their own good, especially when it’s training that helps careers or gets people advanced. Even when I was the guy forcing it all to be mandatory, I didn’t like it. I just couldn’t find a way to make it valuable to the people I wanted to train. It didn’t matter how in-depth or fancy I made the training, or how smart and funny I was, if no one wanted to be in the room. It took a little longer to figure out that, if I could make it valuable, I wouldn’t need to make it mandatory. The people who wanted the information would show up.

So, how do I make it valuable and create training that people want? Amazingly enough, I ask the audience. I’ve even gone so far as to offer a list of topics and have the audience choose what I would teach at the next course. They chose and I taught, even if a single person showed up, because that’s my part of the bargain: to teach what was asked for. Having just a handful of people present who want to be there is better than fifty who don’t. Gradually, more people started coming to training because they wanted to, because they heard that there was value in it and had a voice, not because I made it mandatory.

Sadly, whether I make things mandatory or valuable, some people will never be interested in what’s being offered. I stopped taking that personally a long time ago. Not everyone can be receptive when I want them to be.

– Are you making this next event mandatory because it needs to be by some higher authority, or just because it’s important to you?

– How can you make the next mandatory meeting valuable to those who attend?

– Have you asked those you want to train about what, or at least how, they want to learn?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.