Do we wed ourselves to rules?

Of all the places I’ve worked at very few have been run in a truly liberal way. The rest have resembled something not far from the military.

In these more tightly regulated work places there was one commonality: rules. Or rather, rules or else.

Existing under a strict set of commandments as to ‘how things are done’ does a funny thing to people. I’m sure from a business owner’s perspective it creates a consistent framework and mitigates risk. However, from the employee’s stand point, there’s a detachment to creativity and a lack of emotional investment into the work that is being done. Things become transactional and lifeless.

How can you truly care about the work you are doing when you have no control in the shaping of any part of it? It’s hard not to feel like a cog.

What I’ve also noticed is that people can get a bit Stockholm Syndrome about rules too. Sometimes to the point of absurdity.

I’ve was once in situation where an entire room had agreed that one approach was the best based on common sense, commerciality and progression. There had been acknowledgement that the new route might be harder, but that it would be worth it to reach a better overall result.

However, when it went to the next stage of approval, the ‘rules’ or ‘way things have always been done’ was pulled up. It struck me that this had been done almost as an excuse to not step outside the norm; it was the easier route to take.

In this example, even though the routine way of working was illogical on a polarising scale, it acted as a way out of an idea that might be more challenging. While no one explicitly said it, I remembering feeling like there was was a collective ‘well hey, we tried, right? We just don’t do things that way though so I guess we are back to the usual plan!’ Which just reeks of a cop out.

Similarly, I’ve seen rules and regulations become the one opportunity certain individuals have to exert authority. In these instances, again despite better logic, the rules are often enforced in an over the top manner. This can bring out quite an ugly side of people.

It’s as if the subconscious frustration at not having any control is compensated for by going to town on the rules. This can create an unnecessarily dictatorial feeling, which is a toxic environment to work in. It goes against any definition of empowerment and leaves people feeling like they’re at the bottom of the layer-cake. It’s hardly a desirable environment to be in.

Rules are important. As a society that exists at the scale we do, we need a certain amount of governance to help keep things in order. However, if we, particularly businesses, only ever live under one immovable set, that will be exactly what happens: we will never move.

Just as important as having rules is the need to know when they can be adapted, challenged or broken.

People are quick to say ‘fail fast! You only ever learn from your mistakes!’ But this is categorically impossible in an authoritarian state.

Instead, businesses should be focussing on finding areas where they are comfortable introducing an element of flexibility or collaboration when it comes to deciding how things are down. By doing this employees can learn to judge when common sense comes into play, when to exert a bit of creativity and when it’s reasonable to suggestion something new.

Ultimately this culture helps keep a company and the teams within in it feel invested, inspired and continue moving forward.

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