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Random and Ridiculous Rules in the Workplace

As an aspiring gymnast, my 10-year-old granddaughter spends three nights a week at the gym for two-hour practices. Being 10 means a parent (or grandparent) needs to drive her there, find something to do for the duration, and then chauffeur her home. That is the case for the dozens of youth in the program.

The observation area of the gym is a spot where parents find a seat and get some work or reading done or where the designated drivers sit to await the end of class. It is where smaller siblings play quietly, and one can observe practice. On any given night, there are lots of people there.

That was the case until a few weeks ago.

Suddenly, the gym banned everyone from the observation mezzanine during practice. No more place to watch, to work, to wait.

The cause of the sudden ban?

An overzealous grandmother. One who shouted supporting comments from the observation area. One who, inadvisedly, went down to the practice area to get a better view.

What was right was that the gym manager deemed these behaviors distracting to practice and took the initiative to stop the disturbance.

What wasn’t right was to punish the masses for the missteps of one.

It is quite easy to blame the over-enthusiastic granny for the ban. In reality, the real cause of the ban is the person in charge of the gym. Rather than dealing directly with the errant family member, a rule was enacted. A ban of all from the viewing area. Even the respectful ones. The quiet ones. Which, by the way, were 99% of the viewing audience.

The tendency to punish all for the behaviors of one happens in places other than this gym. We experience it at work, in our faith communities, and with our public laws.

Making a new rule is a way to avoid a tough conversation. It is often a shitty shortcut to address problems that rarely occur. It results from not thinking clearly about a situation, sorting out what is needed, and applying appropriate action. Often it is a knee-jerk reaction to an infrequent occurrence that seems right in the near term and is detrimental in the long term.

When rules get piled upon rules at work, those bound by the rules get the message that they are not to be trusted to make good decisions. The climate becomes oppressive. Creativity suffers. People check out or do the minimum. Those who behave appropriately are annoyed at the over-management. All because the person in charge lacked the courage to have the tough conversation to correct the one person who needed to change.

I think back to a rule enacted at a previous employer. One employee had inappropriately abused the travel expense process by purchasing something that was clearly not a business expense (but under the $25 limit where you did not need to submit a receipt). Rather than address that one instance, a blanket rule was enacted: receipts were required for EVERYTHING by EVERYBODY.

With one fell swoop of the policy pen, additional administrative work was heaped on accounts payable and every single person traveling. 100% of employees who traveled were annoyed, frustrated, and felt they had their personal integrity questioned.

Having a tough conversation with the errant employee would one-time time occurrence. Instead, the new rule was a hassle and annoyance for many for years until a new leader had the courage to change the policy, reiterate the proper actions (in words, not rules), and trust that people would do the right thing.

Rule-making making shows up all the time in customer service centers. I suspect you’ve been the victim of customer service reps who are the mutual victims of rules designed to curb a few abusers of the system and burden everyone else.

I’d like you to consider this additional problem with random rule setting: rules are only effective when enforced. And enforced consistently. And so those rules that get are decreed to avoid  a tough conversation or correction can take one of two paths:

  1. The rule gets enforced, requiring lots of corrective conversations
  2. The rule gets ignored – which invalidates all those other rules that are important

Think about it – if, in the case of the gymnastics example, the gym management was unwilling to challenge the cheering grandmother, do you really think they would challenge the mother with a sleeping infant sitting quietly in the stands?

Let me be clear; we do need work rules. Rules insist on the right behavior and set standards. They are critical for safety, quality, and general good conduct. As leaders, we merely need to put rules in their proper perspective.

A few questions might help us sort out when a rule is needed, versus a corrective conversation:

  • Are we required to do this by law?
  • Is there a safety concern?
  • Does this rule address behaviors that are likely to occur frequently?
  • Does the rule support our core values?
  • Is it important enough that we are willing to enforce the rule and suffer any consequences?

Food for thought – and if you need some support in equipping your leaders to get comfortable having tough conversations, let’s talk!


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