Shaping Company Policy for Rules People vs. Principles People
December 15, 2014
Two Kinds of People
In my experience, people can be put into one of two categories–what I’ll call “Rules People” and “Principles People.” Rules People are often analytical, objective, rational, tough-minded, organized, determined, dedicated, and decisive. Principles People, on the other hand, tend to be more thoughtful, reserved, independent, focused, innovative, forward-thinking, imaginative, and theoretical in their approach to dealing with a given issue. The distinction between these two kinds of people might best be illustrated with an example.
Rules v. Principles–An Illustration
Consider Isaac, a Rules Person, and Bertrand, a Principles Person. Both are young men, between the ages of 25 and 32. Both are hard-working, diligent, and responsible. They each have the same job at the same company, and they were each hired around the same time. Their manager, Patty, has recently been assigned by her supervisor to overhaul the policies and procedures for her department. Patty has had enough time to get to know both Isaac and Bertrand to know they share some similarities, but are each unique people who each respond divergently to different management styles. Patty, therefore, is concerned she will have a tough time writing company policies to which both employees will respond equally well.
As a Rules Person, Isaac likes to have clear, expressly defined procedures and policies to follow. He wants those in positions of authority over him to decidedly, without equivocation govern his conduct by specifically describing what he is expected to do and what he is not permitted to do at work. Isaac feels safer with rules than principles, because he trusts and believes if he stays within carefully defined parameters for his behavior, he will be able to do his job efficiently and effectively, and, therefore, is more likely to achieve success, receive pay increases and promotions, and avoid the effects of any downsizing the company may do.
As a Principles Person, Bertrand prefers for those in positions of authority over him to explain the specific basis of conduct or management underlying the policies with which the company provides him. Bertrand needs to have a reliable, accurate guiding sense of the requirements and obligations of right conduct at a fundamental level. Bertrand is more attuned to the reasons for a rule than the actual, literal wording of the rule itself. Bertrand trusts and believes if he behaves in a way that is consonant with the basis of conduct or management underlying the policies provided to him by the company, he will not only do the things he is supposed to do and refrain from doing things he is not supposed to do, but he will also have the flexibility to creatively solve problems he encounters in his job, which gives him a sense of purpose and fulfillment that transcends any compensation scheme the company could devise.
Patty sees value in both Isaac’s and Bertrand’s approaches to their jobs, and she wants to make sure she establishes policies that give Isaac the clarity and specificity he needs without stifling Bertrand’s creativity or preventing him from solving problems in unexpected ways. After all, both men were hired because they each brought specific, necessary talents and perspectives to the job, and if Patty’s rules favor one over the other, she will be limiting the efficiency and effectiveness of her team. So, what should Patty do? What sort of policies can she create that will work for both of these very different types of employees?
Meta-Rules for Rule Makers
In order to craft good company policy, sometimes rule makers need some rules and principles of their own–“meta-rules,” if you will. Below are a few suggested guidelines for policy makers. I have presented these guidelines according to the three necessary phases of implementing good policies: (1) Conceptualizing, (2) Communicating, and (3) Carrying-Out.
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If, as a leader, you cannot understand the basis of a guideline or rule, the reason or principle on which it is based, the guideline or rule is bad, and should be abolished. If an employee or someone else asks you, “Why do we have to do things this way,” and you have no answer which will satisfy them or will at least give them a compelling reason to follow the guideline, you either need to discover the answer and then clearly communicate it to the employee or other person (see below) or you need to consider the possibility you may be dealing with a guideline or rule which may need to be abolished, or at least subjected to additional scrutiny before it is enforced.
Not only do you need to have a good sense of the rules, but you need to have a good sense of the members of your team, and what kind of people they are. Where someone falls on a Rules-Principles axis is probably best charted by a scatter plot chart, like the one at right, not a Venn Diagram. The distinction is not binary–a person may not be one or the other. I tend to speak in generalizations, and, above, I have given very specific descriptions of “Rules People” and “Principles People” in my illustration to help you understand what I’m talking about.
In reality, however, you will likely only very rarely find someone who is a wholly “Rules Person” or a completely “Principles Person.” Much more common will be the case in which a person has a strong tendency to be a Rules Person or a Principles Person, except under certain conditions or with respect to certain tasks. A good leader understands his team’s strengths and weaknesses contextually! Be careful not to pigeonhole people–especially early in your professional relationship with them. Getting to know someone takes time; make sure you take the time and make the effort before you slap a convenient label on someone.
As a leader, you must be clear about what is most important in your company or organization–the “letter of the law” or the “spirit of the law.” Your employees or subordinates must know your preference. This does not mean that only the “letter of the law” or the “spirit of the law” is important; rather, communicating your preference of one versus the other, when a choice must be made, gives your employees a directive they can follow that will reduce their dependence on you for future clarification. You need to understand the risks and rewards of being principle-driven vs. rules driven and vice versa.
Also, as a leader, you must ensure that your employees or subordinates have copies of written guidelines for their behavior while under your leadership, on the job, or while involved with your organization. Without written guidelines, authorities and subordinates have a difficult time agreeing on what is expected of each. Clarity is key, no matter what your company policy is. Avoid contradictions, vague rules, and fuzzy principles.
Execution is where companies and organizations most frequently drop the ball. Enforcing rules is the delight of the authoritarian (which is a bad thing) and the bane of the Bleeding Heart (also a bad thing). Each company policy should be firm but fair both in their intent and their application.
Apply company policies equally to everyone. In your company or organization, you do not have to treat each person equally; you do have to treat each person equally with respect to the rules. Applying your company’s policies equally to everyone means applying them to yourself, too! Don’t be a hypocrite! “Do as I say, not as I do,” is a hallmark of poor leadership.
Make exceptions to company policy only (1) when failing to make an exception clearly would be unfair, and (2) when you can give an objectively reasonable explanation for making an exception to the rules or policies to which everyone is expected to adhere. This goes along with applying company policy equally to everyone. If you are going to make an exception for one person, consider making an exception for others under the same or similar circumstances, but be prepared to make objective, reasonable distinctions between differences in circumstances, as appropriate.
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