Organizations that are committed to delivering superior results manage by principles, not rules. They recognize that a few rules are necessary in order to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and/or enforce certain codes of conduct in the workplace, but whenever possible, they establish guiding principles that provide team members an appropriate balance of direction and autonomy to make decisions that best serve the organization’s mission. By contrast, organizations that attempt to establish a rule for everything find themselves in a never ending cycle of making and enforcing policies and rules that in the end destroy morale and diminish their ability to focus on doing what it takes to deliver a superior product or service. I want to compel you to do the one thing that will make all the difference for your employees and your customers: That is to eliminate the unnecessary rules and policies, and give employees in your organization more autonomy to make decisions to improve your results and delight your customers.
You know the perils of too many rules and restrictions if you have ever been micro-managed and had to seek authorizations and approvals for trivial decisions that you were perfectly capable of making. You may have also experienced this as a customer if you’ve ever dealt with a service provider or vendor whose employees had to pass you around to their superiors, or put you on hold to get a response to a slightly non-routine inquiry.
I do acknowledge that certain rules are necessary to ensure compliance with standards of quality or workplace safety, or in other cases when the stakes are so high that multiple checks and balances must exist to minimize risk. The key, however, is to know when we are approaching the point of diminishing returns with unnecessary rules.
To demonstrate the difference between rules and principles, a rule-based system for managing employee attendance may involve a point system with clear trigger points and pre-determined consequences, whereas a principle-based system would give the leader leeway to consider the circumstances and make a judgment on what it takes to influence a behavior change. A principle-based system could and should still involve clear consequences for unacceptable performance, but it does not assume a one size fits all disciplinary system.
Unfortunately, too many organizations err on the side of having more policies, rules, and tighter controls to protect themselves rather than taking a chance on trusting that employees will use good judgment and do what’s right for the organization and its customers. A Google search for “stupid workplace rules” will confirm this assertion. Unfortunately, what exacerbates the situation is that in low trust environments, employees also prefer having clear cut rules because they don’t trust their bosses to treat them fairly if they make a decision that the boss doesn’t agree with.
Of course, every organization is different. I have worked in many places where we had no time clocks and simply trusted hourly employees to record their time accurately, but I realize this is something many people cannot even fathom. Elimination of rules and replacing them with principles must be done at a sensible pace. What’s most important is to constantly evaluate the need for policies and rules, and eliminate the ones that are hindering your progress and replace them with guiding principles.
Even if you don’t have the authority to change the policies, there is still something you can do to give your team members more autonomy. You can give them the authority to make decisions while you maintain the accountability. This requires courage on your part, but it sends a huge signal to the organization that you trust them. I did this once when I told one of my employees that I would sign any requisitions up to $5,000 that he brought me with no questions asked when in fact the limit that was assigned to him by the company was a ridiculously low $250, which I didn’t have the power to change! It took this employee some time to get used to not having to explain himself, but we ended up operating, for years, under that agreement that honored his expertise, demonstrated my trust in him, and saved us the time to go through all the explanations.
What unnecessary rules do you have at your workplace? Do you have the power to eliminate or modify them? If so, consider doing so. If not, is there anyone you can influence to do the same? I wish you the best as you continue to perpetuate a spirit of trust at your workplace so that you can empower everyone to do their best in accomplishing the mission of your organization.
Thank you for taking the time to read my post. As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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