Leadership Rules

August 27, 2011

I’ve never lived in a world, or worked in an organization, that was void of rules. Rules can be a drag, but they can also serve as a very functional guide to productive behavior. Rules should always be purposeful, behavioral, very specific, and kept to an absolute minimum.

Rules should always represent minimum, reasonable standards of expected behavior, not stretch effort. For people with an internal locus of control that focus on group goals and hold themselves accountable to high standards of performance and conduct, rules are irrelevant. Good rules are only an issue for those that make bad choices.

Always stand behind, but never hide behind, your rules. Rules should be continually evaluated for their value and ability to serve the purpose. Eliminate or change a rule the moment it ceases to enable your people to work together more effectively. Rules are only as stupid as the people that use them as excuses to avoid improving systems.

Whatever you do, never bend the rules. If you make an exception to the rules for one person, you will send a discouraging message to the rest of your folks. If you bend a rule for one person, your standards and expectations will become ambiguous to everyone else. Bending a rule will teach people that you are willing to play favorites, unwilling to take the heat when the pressure is on, and unable to see the ethical gaps of your own behavior. If a rule no longer works for the group, change it.

Your behavior as a leader should teach people that “rule” is an innocuous four letter word. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (16)

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  1. Rules don’t have to be set in stone, but this doesn’t mean that they should be circumvented. It always helps to evaluate them regularly and see if they remain relevant to an organization.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Eleanor. Totally concur with your advice. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  2. Shandel says:

    Great post. I love the line stand behind vs hide behind. I hate it when leaders make a rule for the team when it is one person who needs to be corrected and coached through a behavioral issue. Thanks for your work!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    That’s a great point, Shandel. Don’t break and don’t make a rule just for one person. Thanks! Bret

  3. Valerie Iravani says:

    Bret, this is good advice, and I will pass it along. I wish we had more of this common sense in our government representatives!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Valerie! Bret

  4. Matt Spaur says:

    I’m always surprised when people forget that we make our rules and that we can decide to improve our rules to improve our group.

    You write that rules should represent the reasonable minimum standard of behavior, not stretch effort. To me, this seems to define behavior we don’t want to have happen. Can rules also encourage behavior that we want to see repeated? Would this be just a new, higher minimum, or do we call this something else like goals or culture?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Matt! I would agree with you that most of the time rules define the edges of the sandbox. The sandbox is a place to explore and have fun, but there are a few things you just can’t do or you will be asked to leave the box. I think the kind of rule you are asking about is more culture than policy. When people say our only rule is to have fun, that’s really a statement of culture. Thanks! Bret

  5. Andrew says:

    Trying to rule on culture is like herding cats. Regretfully too many leaders don’t consider culture when creating, amending, or deleting rules and the resulting impact on culture spirals things out of control.

    Creating rules that have an impact on culture are entirely appropriate, but don’t try and rule on how it should be; consider the impact on the culture in your decision making.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Andrew. We use the word culture a lot, and it is powerful, but as you correctly point out creating or recreating a culture is hard work. I do think a few real rules help define the parameters. Thanks! Bret

  6. KLow says:

    I have never been a fan of rules, once made they often become irrelevant in short order. Much better to build a culture of common sense, and dialogue to discover what to do in any situation, rather than make a “rule”. Consistent decision making and fairness create a culture where folks already know what to expect, and why. I also how will this affect others, who else will this affect, and my one golden rule, “I am willing to do this for everyone?”
    that’s my two cents,

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Totally concur with you about the value of dialogue and culture. With certain conditions, that works just fine. But not all organizations have those conditions, and until they can develop them, some rules are just necessary. Like you I wish it were not so, but it is. Thanks! Bret

  7. Mark says:

    “Rules should always be purposeful, behavioral, very specific, and kept to an absolute minimum”

    Couldn’t agree more Bret. I am not a big fan of creating rules for the sake of having rules, but I have seen many leaders within organizations that believe they have to have rules to address every possible scenario, or curb every negative behavior, etc…

    I like the comment about being specific. In my opinion, employees begin to respect rules when they clearly understand them, and are clear on their intent. This becomes quite challenging when there are too many rules or if they are vague or too general.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Mark! The thing to keep in mind is to make sure rules always serve your people, and never to make your people serve the rules. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret

  8. It is finding the right balance when setting up rules,so that you do not need to bend them. Good rules need to be well thought through before setting them in concrete. Have a rule such as “we treat our customers care and respect” would cover a lot of ground. It is much easier to have a couple great rules instead of a binder full do’s and don’ts for everyone to follow.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Tina! Strongly concur that a couple of great rules is better than a binder full of bad ones. We also need to treat each other with respect and care. Managers lead the way with this. Thanks for sharing! Bret