On rules

This piece is not going to advocate for a form of anarchy but rather explore the insidious nature of how our attempts to control with rules can tend towards the opposite. A rule is an abstraction and usually an attempt to ensure conformity to a standard: driving on the left, working between 9 and 5, doing the washing up on a Tuesday, how a game is to be played. Mirriam-Webster defines a rule as “a statement spelling out the proper procedure or conduct for an activity”. They are often means of ensuring fairness or compliance to required behaviours, especially when used in specific contexts such as a family or an organisation. Of course, mandating behaviour is fraught with challenge, not least of which because the human condition is to usually rail against being told how to live, think, feel. Such a rule-based approach tends also to be a sticking plaster over the real challenge, but to get at that we have to back right up a bit and figure it out first, which of course takes time and effort. 

We mandate returning to the office three days a week because we see the presenting issue is that people aren’t in the office enough, and as leaders it is integral to our value-set that we work face-to-face, whether or not that is the best way of producing our best work. It’s much harder to figure out why people are behaving as they are, why some are in the office five days and others none. So we find a compromise solution and mandate adherence to it. In my recent warm data training with Nora Bateson we explored the resulting issue that by making a rule you are eliminating the possibilities of complexity and the unknowable range of innovative responses to a situation. You’re setting out only one path to the future when in effect there could be an unlimited number, many of which are inevitably likely to be better. 

When you narrow possibilities you are reducing options to the lowest common denominator, and as such it is likely to suit no-one. We see HR do this all the time: a new rule or policy is introduced to counter another individual circumstance that crops up, to avoid such a loophole being exploited by anyone else, to try and protect the company from such abuse. A sticking plaster to a circumstance. Yet the best HR policy I have come across was a 9 word version of the golden rule: treat people as you would want to be treated. 

We see the same in terms of services, too. When you call a utility provider or ‘helpdesk’ you can soon tell when your enquiry that falls outside the normal range. First off there is likely to be no call handling option to select, so you let it ring through, and spend the next thirty minutes explaining your query to an increasingly senior set of people until, if you are lucky, you end up talking to someone that can help. When your situation falls outside the script you have to swim in murky waters. Such standardisation is an attempt to introduce ‘lean’ efficiency into the work but only when viewed from the organisation’s perspective. From the perspective of the increasingly frustrated customer, it is anything but. 

As John Seddon says, when we standardise we crowd out the ability of our service systems to absorb for variety. And variety is what we have. Better instead to do away with such rule-based approaches and support people to be able to respond to the presenting conditions. By doing so we are signalling trust and offering a degree of autonomy, both important in terms of increasing people’s satisfaction at work. 

Further,  by dictating what actions to take in any given circumstance we destroy the possibility of new perceptions and improved relationships. Nora shared an example of a family with a set of rules around who does which chores when. If the rota says I do the dishes on a Tuesday I am much less likely to realise that I need to step up and do them on a Friday because I can see that whoever normally does them on a Friday has something going on and would really value me – someone – picking this up for them. It’s why it hurts when someone doesn’t step up when we need them to – it’s less about the task and more about the fact they’ve not noticed, they’ve not tended the relationship. The rota can effectively crowd out the flexibility we all need in our lives, when instead we need to be cultivating our situational awareness and relations with those we live with. 

All too often the use of rules results in the liberation of our inherent creativity in finding ways around such rules, resisting them, or ignoring them all together. Largely, perhaps, because laws and rules are agnostic of relationships, and it is tending to the relationships that make things work. When the rules are too draconian or petty in mandating behaviour we push-back, in the form of social movements that demand change, such as #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter, or perhaps by ignoring the latest HR policy and carrying on regardless, or perhaps by organising and striking. Telling me I must be in the office Tuesday to Thursday, irrespective of context or circumstance. An expenses policy that takes longer to comply with and costs more than the expenses themselves. Telling me I am only working when I am in the office or infront of a computer, and not when I am walking through the park for half an hour thinking through a particularly tricky situation.  

They may feel petty, but they strike at the heart of the relations, of what is it to be human. Do we trust people to do the right thing at the right time and give them the autonomy, as adults, to tend to their own mental and physical wellbeing as well as those of colleges and the needs of the company? Or do we believe that people need extrinsic motivation and guidelines in order to do what is needed? In ‘The Infinite Game’, Simon Sinek notes that “in weak cultures, people find safety in the rules. This is why we get bureaucrats. They believe a strict adherence to the rules provides them with job security. And in the process, they do damage to the trust inside and outside the organisation. In strong cultures, people find safety in relationships. Strong relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams. And all high-performing teams start with trust”. 

A rules-based approach is ultimately a product of our industrial, factory paradigm which still says that work is to be managed, quantified and optimised. We have to be better, faster, more efficient. Notwithstanding the fact that productivity seems to me to be another arbitrary factory measure unhelpful in today’s knowledge economy and with so many complex challenges at the heart of our work. Challenges that need alternative approaches to let the possibility of the unknown emerge. Time and space is necessary to tend to such work, to develop the necessary relationships, to see the potential in the moment. This is the work of our time, and it’s not work that benefits – in the slightest – from a rubric inherited from the industrial-mindset of the last several hundred years.  

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