Personally Responsible

Ever wonder why it’s so darn hard to get people to follow park rules? It seems like every time there is a park issue, it results in a request to plant more signs in the park--No littering, No fireworks, No glass bottles, No alcohol. When did good common sense or plain common courtesy become such a challenge? I have a theory.

For years, society has become increasingly litigious. Many have heard about the $1million-coffee cup lawsuit involving McDonald’s. I really don’t know if there was cause, but the case was the pivotal reinforcement the unhappy vocal minority needed to embrace the “entitlement” attitude. Discarded is the possibility that the customer is not always right.

Problem-Solving vs. Programmed Response

As managers, we sometimes fall into a trap by reinforcing this entitlement thinking. We feel that, to provide the best customer service, we have to take action on every request. After all, we are the stewards of the public’s most precious resources! For instance, we have a department-wide meeting periodically to discuss topics of concern; inevitably, someone brings up a minor issue between two work groups.

In my earlier years in management, I was inclined to jump in and solve the problem. What I have learned from years of marriage to a confident woman--involving countless false starts on my part--is that sometimes people just want to vent and don’t need me to fix their problem. This approach has not been easy. If left to my own devices, I will go to my hard-wired default setting of action-oriented problem solver.

Recently, I told a supervisor who wanted me to resolve an issue: “Ken, you are in an important position of responsibility. We trust you to research the facts, evaluate the problem, and then make a supportable decision. Now, if you feel you are unable to make a decision, I’m your huckleberry. I love to solve other people’s problems.”

Too often we allow the entitlement attitude to drive our decision-making, our actions, and sometimes unknowingly, our policies. There are a few difficult customers, “Frequent Flyers,” who devour hours of staff time, disproportionate budget dollars, and the lifeblood of the staff person who has to deal with this constituent. This article, however, is not about dealing with difficult customers, but about personal responsibility. Let’s return to the $1-million cup of coffee. Here is the Web link if you want the Mc 411:

According to that Web site:

McFact No. 6--After careful deliberation, the jury found McDonald's was liable because the facts were overwhelmingly against the company. When it came to punitive damages, the jury found McDonald's had engaged in willful, reckless, malicious or wanton conduct, and it rendered a punitive damage award of $2.7 million. (McDonald’s Corporation generates revenues in excess of $1.3 million daily from the sale of its coffee, selling 1 billion cups each year.)

McFact No. 7: On appeal, a judge lowered the award to $480,000, a fact not widely publicized in the media.

Signs Won’t Replace Civilized Behavior

A common complaint from park customers is that we don’t do more to control irresponsible dog owners: “I walk every day in the park and I see this one guy walking his dog, and he doesn’t pick up after it. Yuck, it’s disgusting. I think you should put up more signs!” Sound familiar? Currently, park rules are posted at all of the major entrances; the rules are then reinforced by additional signs throughout the park, some reminding park users to pick up after their pets. We have even created several versions of Pet Pick-Ups and deployed them in the park system.

The root problem is now obvious--some pet owners are selfish and don’t care about civilized behavior; they feel entitled. Unfortunately, their dogs don’t read, so all the signs are not going to help!

I believe the most significant approach in solving this problem is not more regulation or stricter punishment, but social pressure. Consensus in a community about individual responsibility can have a tremendous impact. A few, of course, have no interest in being part of a community. However, I believe that the majority of the dog-poop perpetrators are not selfish at heart--just lazy. These folks will most likely react to the pressure of social conformity (consensus to the public norm), when they know someone is watching. Knowing they may be embarrassed when a fellow park user politely asks them to pick up after their pet may cause them to re-examine the values that guide their conduct.

Park management doesn’t have the resources to ramp up the enforcement on perpetrators or throw up more signs. What can be utilized is community-based support in the form of park watches, park adoption, social/peer pressure exerted strategically, and, ultimately, the acceptance of personal responsibility.

Finally, if that doesn’t work, in Longmont we use the following sign in the parks, and while dogs can’t read, they are certainly not blind!

Don Bessler is the Director of Parks, Open Space & Public Facilities for Longmont, Colo. He can be reached via e-mail at