Putting Rules in Their Place

This post, from 2012, examines the role that rules play in organizations and how easy it is to fall into a pattern of blindly following them even after they have long fulfilled their purpose.


To live a civilized life, we need rules, but when do rules start working against us instead of for us?  I think it is when they morph into something that satisfies the few while serving to control and stifle the ideas, ambitions and progress of the many.

Witness the British Government in 1964.  This was a time when, musically, the British invasion was happening everywhere… except inBritain where the government there placed a ban on Rock ‘n Roll music.  In fact, British rock and pop broadcasters were allowed only two hours of airtime per week, despite a growing demand for it from the public at large.

Here, from the movie, Pirate Radio is an idea (although somewhat exaggerated) of the government attitude of the time on this subject.

Your organization may not look very much like that. But as its leader, or one of its leaders, you will also have rules. Some will have preceded you.  Some you will make yourself.  Some you will develop with others.  And some will be imposed upon you. Whatever their genesis, these rules were at one time or another put in place for a reason.  In my experience though, it is often the case that the reason disappears long before the rule that was developed to address it.  As a result, governments and organizations alike accumulate rules that no longer serve any useful purpose.  An example of this comes from the Province of Alberta where the law still states “businesses must provide rails for tying up horses”.

The point is, that while rules must be respected, they should never be viewed as sacrosanct.  As such, they are fair game for challenge.

The process of putting rules under scrutiny does not necessarily have to be a big undertaking.  It could be simply a matter of developing a habit of examining them through different lenses, like these three, to confirm their continued effectiveness:

 Relevance in the current environment

If the rule in question seems more to hinder than contribute to your progress, it may be time to give it closer examination. Why was it made in the first place?  Do those conditions currently exist? What purpose might it continue to serve? If you abolish it, what are the risk factors associated with doing so? How will it affect other areas, or people, in your organization?

Alignment with organizational purpose, and values

In my mind, rules must fit with purpose and values, not the other way around.

For example, in Florida, a young lifeguard was once fired for going outside the bounds of his designated area to save a drowning man.  The company’s argument for firing him was that he disobeyed a rule and they were concerned about being exposed to litigation.

It seems to me that the organization’s purpose was essentially to keep people safe from drowning. In fact, as it is a private lifeguarding company, keeping people safe from drowning is  its whole reason for being.  But, had this particular lifeguard obeyed the rule and stayed within his designated area, a man might very well have lost his life.  So, while there may still be a place for this rule, in order to fit with the organizational purpose, it requires examination and change for alignment.

Accuracy of assumptions

Sometimes rules are made based on false assumptions so it’s always a good idea when examining a rule to consider the beliefs on which it is based.  Simply asking, ‘by enforcing this rule, what might we be assuming?’ could trigger a useful discussion about its continued place in the organization.


So here’s the bottom line.  Rules have their place but they form only part of the framework that allows people the opportunity to do their best work.  Outdated, irrelevant, self-serving rules can get in the way. If you are a leader, you can’t afford to let that happen.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Please Note: The clip from the movie “Pirate Radio” is not used for commercial purposes or financial gain.  It is respectfully borrowed  for illustration purposes only and not intended to infringe on copyright.



Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Management, Organizational Effectiveness, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Putting Rules in Their Place

  1. TT

    Hi Gwyn
    I enjoyed reading your recent posts. Even though this week’s post talks about things that happened in the past, it makes me think about how new technology gives us more options and helps us each be individuals, but also imposes more rules!
    Follow these links. Use this template. Don’t text and drive!
    Hope you stay safe, healthy, and happy during the holidays! : )

  2. TT

    Hello again, Gwyn
    Your posts give me “food for thought” so I remembered this week’s topic when I watched a video about crocheting. The comment was that if you follow the rules you’ll have a nice finished, functional blanket or scarf. I learned from experience that if you don’t follow the rules you end up with a tangled mess that is nothing except a waste of time! So, just as you said, rules serve a purpose, though, they become problematic when they serve the few instead of the many. However, the people in power can be the few who make the rules for the rest of us to follow. I need a gentle reminder that adhering to rules might be less fun but can make my life easier! : )

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Terry ~ I agree. Rules have their place, especially if, in the case of crocheting, they lead to an expected outcome. However, they should never be above challenge. For instance, if you decided to challenge the rules of crocheting, you might, as you point out, end up with a tangled mess. On the other hand, you might also discover a better way to produce a better product. So it makes me think that challenging rules can be a risky business but one that often allows for, and encourages, progress. Thanks for giving rise to that thought.
      Sending good holiday wishes to you too. And, by the way, I think the rule about texting and driving is not among those that I’d challenged 🙂

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