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  • Writer's pictureDr. Stefan Fourier

Leading with rules

Rules are all around us: RULES. We follow them, break them, circumvent them, suffer from them, or benefit from them. Rules are so ubiquitous that we often no longer notice how they dominate our lives. A freedom-loving mind is easily tempted to exclaim "away with the rules." But aside from the fact that such a wish seems utopian, it is probably not sensible either. People live in social systems that structure and regulate themselves, almost autopoetically. Even without deliberate directives from individuals, rules and procedures will develop that members of the system follow. The criterion for this is the survival of the system in its environment. Naturally, this rule formation takes a relatively long time. Human influence in rule formation and enforcement accelerates this process, but it also means that certain individual interests are incorporated into the rule set. Whether this is good for the system and the affected individuals usually becomes clear only later.

We are therefore dealing with a very confusing, complex situation. It is therefore sensible to occasionally become aware of some principles of rules and rule-setting. Here are six thoughts to help:

Rules are driven by interests

Rules always have a dual purpose, namely a visible and an invisible one. The visible ones are the objective goals that the rule aims to achieve, while the invisible ones—at least most of the time—are the subjective intentions pursued by the rule-makers. Daily meetings for the operational control of production enable effective problem-solving (objective goal). At the same time, the boss tries to get all the information and give his instructions with the least time investment (subjective intention). He often accepts that people attend the meeting who are not currently needed and could be doing other things during that time. The solution can lie in variable agendas and variable participant groups, which requires more thought and preparation work from the rule-maker.

Rules need power to be enforced

This power can take different forms. It can be the power of an individual: the boss sets the rule or firmly supports it. Power arises when everyone (or the majority) wants a particular rule. Power also lies in the threat of sanctions. The flip side of this coin is that rules also create power. The enforcers of the rules, often middle management, gain power over others from this role. They derive it not (only) from their competence but from the rule set. The subjective intention of middle management is in many cases to expand the rule set. This is one of the reasons for excessive bureaucracy.

Rules must be broken before new ones can arise

If rules were only motivated by objective goals, they would not need to be broken but logically changed. When goals or conditions of a process change, new rules can be found and defined based on simple cause-effect chains. But the rule world is not that objective, not even in companies. Subjective intentions are always at play somewhere, even if only because people have become accustomed to certain procedures and do not want to change. And already they hold on to the rules. "We have always done it this way." Here, rule-breakers are needed, in the best sense of the word. However, if they do not have the necessary power, the old rules will remain.

Setting rules or negotiating them?

One can set rules. This is still the most commonly used form: top-down. This does not change even if the guidelines are explained to the teams. "Breaking down" is the popular, almost treacherous keyword here. Rules can also be negotiated, with an open outcome. For example, instead of saying, "we will do it this way," the boss can ask, "How do we want to do this?" This can lead to a good discussion, resulting in a better rule and accepted sanctions. This has the advantage that the rule usually lasts longer and is supported by more people. It becomes intrinsic.

Influencing rules "from below"

What can be done if, as an employee, you want to change existing rules (believe you need to change them) but do not have the necessary power and the company does not have a culture of rule negotiation? There is the concept of constructive influence. It is exhausting to repeatedly address critical points and make constructive suggestions without being heard. But this is the only way to change existing rules through professionally sound suggestions, persistent effort, and the search for allies. The fewer subjective intentions you have with your proposals, the better the chances of success.


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