For teams, rules suck. Principles rule.


Finish this sentence..."Rules are made to be __________________"

Most people will respond with "broken".

This is a clue for why rules may not be as useful as we think in team environments. When we set up rules, we set up the potential for a power struggle. We will have team members who will find themselves railing against rules that they perceive as unfair, restrictive or unreasonable. They will do what they can to work around the rules and as leaders, we are doing our best to ensure that those people play by the rules. On the flip side, we have people who are drawn to following those rules and feel very comfortable and safe within the confines of the rules. Both of these are not great outcomes.

The goal of rules is control and compliance that ensures that team members follow processes prescribed by the leader and/or organisation.

While rules are meant to be broken, principles are intended to be guidelines. They are based on assumptions, reflections, and experience (as are rules). The big difference with principles is that they acknowledge the importance of context and that in most environments it is not possible to have a rule for every possible situation. They entrust team members with the decision making authority. Again, you will have some team members who thrive in this environment and appreciate the autonomy. Given the way that many of us have learned to operate through education and into employment, there will be others who feel a bit lost and come to you saying things like "can you just tell me what to do!?!". For our team members who are craving the comfort and safety of rules, our job is to support them to trust themselves in more situations. Be patient, it's worth it.

The goal of principles is to empower team members to take decisions and actions that they are confident are in the best interest of the team.

The big problem with rules is that they work - until they don't! For the parts of your team's work that are definitely repeatable and controllable, it makes sense to have rules - monthly reports, timesheets and so on. For work that has more moving parts, variety and unpredictability (like projects and relationship driven work), it's likely that principles will serve you and your team better as they are more responsive, adaptable and suited to the complex environments that our teams operate in.

Some questions for you to consider this week about Rules vs. Principles, considering the distinction between the two (with thanks to Collins Dictionary):

  1. Rules - instructions that tell you what you are allowed to do and what you are not.
    Which rules are serving your team well?

  2. Principles - general belief about the way we should behave.
    What are some examples of where your team would benefit from clearer principles?