Six Reasons Your Company Should Pay Less Attention To The Rules

Sure, everybody in your organization needs to know the rules but if you think that’s going to be enough to hold anyone accountable, I’d think again. So, maybe my point has less to do with a need to pay less attention to the rules and, instead, a need to pay a whole lot more attention to other things as well.

Of the many reasons it’s not enough to just focus on the rules, here are a few that seem to come up constantly in my work… (NOTE: Arguably, every one of these falls under the category of common sense. Yet, I see them all the time.)

  • Perhaps the most obvious-sounding one and yet one that somehow still manages to get overlooked time after time after time; knowing and doing are not one and the same. You can’t simply tell people what do and expect that it ends there. They need to be encouraged and reinforced for putting the rules and expectations into action. Complain all you want that you shouldn’t have to do that but, I promise you, you have to do that.
  • Not every rule is as easy to put into practice as you think. Do your employees see barriers – whether real or simply perceived – to following the rules? You can’t know that unless you ask and once you ask, you need to be prepared to help them overcome those barriers. Otherwise, any training on the rules and expectations has the potential to be of little or no actual value.
  • Piggy-backing on the last one… Are you asking employees to do things that are, in fact, fully in their control? Perhaps it sounds silly but I often see folks being held accountable for things that are partially or even entirely out of their control. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell an employee they have to so something they can’t do – I promise it’s not going to happen.
  • Do your employees know the actual value of the rules on which they’re trained? And by that, I mean do they know the value of following the rules in contributing to their personal success? If not, they’ll be less motivated to attend to them. Sure, we all want employees to be attentive to the rules just because they’re the rules but we also know that isn’t often enough. Without that extra motivation, it’s really just the same power struggle we so often find between parents and kids. The moment the reason to follow a rule or meet an expectation is “because I told you so”, you’ve likely already lost the battle in part or in whole. (Plus, see bullet point #1 above…)
  • Knowing the rules and expectations is essential for holding employees (and ourselves) accountable. However, if we don’t also know what to do when there isn’t a rule or expectation for something, we’re up the proverbial creek. After all, as many rules and expectations as there are, there will always be waaaaay more things for which there aren’t any. Are your employees fully trained on this? They absolutely need to be. Sometimes organizations get so focused on the rules that this idea gets lost and that’s dangerous in more ways than I can count.
  • Here’s a sometimes-touchy one… Do your employees feel empowered to speak up when a rule, policy or procedure really isn’t the right tool for the job? Sometimes, blindly following the rules – as we all know when we think about it – can be the worst possible choice. If ‘doing the right thing” in your organization simply means following the rules, remember that you may well be heading for serious trouble. For starters, few rules – especially when we’re talking about internal polices and procedures – are set in stone and they certainly shouldn’t be. Better to update a rule to reflect how your organization really does business than either try to enforce an unenforceable rule or tell employees “Oh, that rule isn’t really important.” Once you label a rule – any rule – as ‘unimportant’, it takes a millisecond for employees to start deciding for themselves which rules they think are important and which aren’t. That’s a problem well-worth avoiding! Secondly, from the standpoint of ethics, sometimes there are rules or expectations that really shouldn’t be followed. (But that’s entirely another discussion…)

It’s always seductive to think that teaching the rules, policies and procedures is the singular foundation for holding employees accountable. Were it only so easy…

By all means, train on the rules and set crystal-cleat expectations. You need to! Just be sure to keep in mind that, if you’re really after a culture where everyone is accountable, teaching those rules and setting those expectations are simply a starting place. Obviously they are essential. Just remember that they are equally clearly insufficient.

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