Tag Archives: leaders

Talking about the Rules

24 Apr

I was reflecting on a social media post by a successful IT leader the other day; it was a list of his rules to live and work by. He had talked about them enough over the course of his career that people had asked him to write them down. (As an aside, I’ve found other cases of people asking leaders to codify their life instructions; it seems to be a fairly common event.)

These particular guidelines were very good; the work of a thoughtful, caring, dedicated colleague and leader. Things anyone wise would take to heart. My own reaction centers not on what the guidelines said but on the way the guidelines came about. Upon their genesis, which seems arbitrary.

In any group of humans working together a set of rules develops over time that define who we are and what we do. How we talk to each other, who gets more authority, what skills are valued, what behaviors are off-limits, etc. You might say these rules exist on a kind of consciousness continuum. Some are visible: talked about, written down, and even posted on a wall, like an office sign that says “no smoking.” But most rules are invisible. We don’t talk about them much, nor do we write them down, and they may not even be thought about consciously. These hidden rules are perhaps the more powerful and meaningful rules, and they are not always pretty. They might contradict more visible rules, or otherwise be something you aren’t particularly proud to say out loud. For example, one deeper rule might be “we actually do smoke; we just do it when the boss is out, and we open the windows and turn on the fan to hide the fact.”

One of my interests has long been to help make these deeper rules visible, discussable, and changeable. To give people the conscious tools to acknowledge and adjust (if they wish) their workplace culture, improve their interpersonal relations, even revise their own deeply personal decision-making.

That’s why the IT leader’s list caught my eye. His list is his way of saying “these are the rules I think we should follow” or “let’s change the rules to these.” This move is good in a lot of ways: our leader is perceptive enough to sense what is going on around him; he is reflective and imaginative enough to think about how things ought to be; he sees the world as a place that can be improved (plastic in the original sense, of “moldable”); he thinks he and his colleagues have the power to make changes; his proposed rules are in the service of improving the lives of others; by making a list, he shows that he knows there are rules; etc. All good.

And what would be better still, although admittedly harder, would be to engage the other members of the organization in the creation of such a set of rules. To invite them into a space where they could contribute in the perception, acknowledgement, and adjustment of the way they worked together. If one person on their own has good ideas about how to fix things, wouldn’t more people have better ideas still? If you could get your colleagues productively engaged, a lot of benefits would accrue, among them two key ones: you might get their buy-in to helping you enact the new rules thereafter, and you might empower them to keep on talking about and improving cultural rules forever. Which is probably the ultimate goal: to leave behind a culture that has the tools to continually improve itself.

Getting more people involved is easier said than done, I admit. Why? Well, one of the most important rules is like the movie Fight Club: we don’t talk about the rules. Our identities and social status are wrapped up in them as they are. If we mess with the rules, it’s not clear what will happen. If I am to start being honest about what needs to improve, for example, things might come up that I don’t want to change. Maybe I will be asked to get better, and maybe I won’t be able to! Very scary. Power dynamics also have a rule-reinforcing effect: we are, in general, famously reluctant to tell our supervisors what we are really thinking and feeling, and vice versa. Easy to get a group of reports to talk candidly about the rules of their relationship with their boss if she is not in the room. Harder to get to the same level of honesty with her there. But a level of semi-radical openness is what you need to surface and rewrite the rules.

The IT leader might be the only person in his organization who can safely produce a list of rules as he did. The worst case scenario for him is that his staff may politely ignore his list. There is rather more risk for a person at a lower organizational level to spontaneously propose changes like these.

Having said all this, it’s not too late for this leader’s list. You could use it, once made, to open up a conversation, even if you hadn’t involved people theretofore. It could itself be the entry into engagement; if you could get interested staff in a room, put them at ease, and build some trust, you might ask them what they felt about the IT leader’s guidelines. Which resonated with them, which didn’t, etc. You might get them to articulate one or two rules they felt were important in their own lives and work. You might get them to think about what role unspoken rules play in their organization. And so you might have the start of an effective rule-changing conversation that could both help you improve things in the short term and build the skills in the staff to continue improving things in perpetuity.