The Tension Around Rules

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tensionOpinions about rules tend to polarize in two camps: the rule-keepers and the rule-breakers.

Ideologically, rule-keepers tend to see rules as moral imperatives and rule-breakers see them as the control mechanisms of those in power.

While ideologies drive much of how people assess life, they do not strictly determine how people functionally live life.

Functionally, most people live as both rule-breakers and rule-keepers. For example, a great rule-keeping employee may break every rule of personal health from improper diet to inadequate sleep. As Alan Bennet said, “We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn’t obey the rules.”

The fact is rules are often written around important ideals, but have to be followed with consideration for what’s real. That reality creates a tension in us, no matter which rules-camp you most identify with.

The challenge when it comes to rules is learning how to manage the tension between what’s ideal and what’s real.

It’s ideal to say, “Bedtime is 9:00 pm. Lights out.” But at 9:01 when your kids are still fighting you it’s real to say, “Yes, I’ll read you one more story.”

Here are some “ideal realisms” on managing the tension around rules.

Rules should be broken when they harm instead of help.

Most organizations have rules regarding paperwork, policies, and practices. It’s safe to assume that procedural rules are not written to cause harm to anyone but to help create operational consistency and efficiency. So when it is discovered that an operational rule has the unintended consequence of harming someone or hindering their progress, the rule should be broken.

My daughter is fighting a degenerative condition in her hip, and we have been referred to a specialist in a major city. After signing a release of records form and being told our daughter’s MRI would be sent to the specialist, we discovered a week later that no results had been sent due to our failure to check the correct box on the form.

Thankfully when we called to inquire why the MRI had not been sent we ended up on the phone with a “rule-breaker” who said, “While I’ve got you on the phone, I’m going to check this box for you and send these records on their way.”

I’m sure whoever created that form had a very good reason for requiring patients to check the appropriate boxes, but I am also sure their reason was not meant to harm or hinder the patient.

Whenever the ideal of a rule brings harm to a person, always prefer people over policies and break the rule.

All rules are not weighted equally.

A bedtime rule does not share equal weight with a roadway rule. Failure to brush your teeth is not the same as failure to yield.

Even Jesus, who was great at managing the tension created by rules, recognized the differing weights of rules when he asked why some teachers placed more weight on man-made traditions than God-given commands.

It’s important to recognize the differing weights of rules in order to help people discern how to prioritize for themselves. If my kids grow up with a 9pm bedtime and they tell my grandkids bedtime is 10pm, that’s OK. But if my kids tell their kids it’s OK to drive before getting a license, that is not acceptable.

Rules should not to be broken for favorites and enforced for opponents.

A local university in my community is under investigation because they bent the rules for a favorite employee. That is unethical and immoral. A culture where the “rules only apply to certain people” causes unnecessary anger and frustration.

When we manage the tension created by rules through playing favorites, we are using rules as weapons.

People who begin to use rules as weapons do not enjoy high levels of trust.  Ironically, organizations that experience a detriment of trust often try to correct the problem by writing more rules.

There is plenty of room for foolish abuses by rule-keepers and rule-breakers. Henry David Thoreau aptly said, “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.”

In order to avoid such foolishness, we have to learn to manage the tension between the real and the ideal when it comes to rules.

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