On principles and rules: heuristics and algorithms

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Last year I became the president of a national professional society. I had the unfortunate experience of having to work with the past president, a man who seemed incapable of accepting responsibility for or making any hard decision. His style was to try to drive the organization to write extremely detailed policies (rules) that he could go to for the solution to every issue. The terms “rigid” and “inflexible” do not begin to capture his behavior. Needless to say, it has been an interesting year. Like most crucibles, one can mine such an experience for knowledge. So, it seems to me that…

Many aspects of human behavior can be conceptualized on a dichotomous continuum. Examples abound: Introvert vs. extrovert, kind vs. mean, happy vs. sad, task vs. relationship, left brain vs. right brain etc., etc., etc. Our nervous systems, particularly our brains, are hard-wired this way.

One interesting and often confusing continuum is rules vs. principles. It appears many people have not really thought of this as a continuum and the inability to comprehend this distinction can cause problems. Rules and principles are both very important; however, their application, and the context and results of that application, have quite different consequences. A rule is basically an algorithm, logical step-by-step set of procedures that if followed produces exactly the same set of results every time. Principles are heuristics, informal methods for solving problems or making decisions based on experience and often using iteration, a form of trial and error.

Let me give you an example. I was wise in my choice of parents and to a large extent my mother and father complemented each other in a manner that allowed me to see and experience two very different styles of living in action. My mother taught me a very good rule: Always say “thank you.” I use it often and it has served me well. Basically, there is one way to say thank you. My father taught me, through his actions, to “always show respect for people.” This is clearly a heuristic, a principle, and there are perhaps hundreds, if not thousands of ways to enact this principle. This is more challenging and requires thought and planful action. It is in a principle for living and one that I am still working on perfecting.

Consider the following. “I don’t do that – it’s not in my job description.” This is an extremely unpleasant phrase to hear if you are a manager trying to accomplish something. It usually means “bad employee” to managers, but unfortunately the problem is more fundamental and partially of management’s own creation.

We often hear that knowledge workers need to be managed with trust and not by force and yet we have inadvertently created systems that invite some workers, almost without exception the low performers, to use the aforementioned sentence. By focusing on rules (tasks) instead of principles (responsibilities) we have walked ourselves into the rules trap.

How does this type of thoughtless rule making happen? Rules often “growed like Topsy.” Policies, especially policies about people, are most often written in reaction to some unfortunate incident. Many times I have been in a meeting where someone suggested that we need a policy to make sure something doesn’t happen again. This is a completely reactive style of management practice. Consider what message it conveys to people when we tell them what not to do instead of what to do.

There are negative consequences of reactionary rule writing. First, rules are often written without any consideration of unintended consequences, particularly throughout the larger organization. Many times a rule that works perfectly in one part of the organization results in chaos in another part. This is a perfect example of solving a tactical problem and creating a strategic issue.

The manner in which such rules are written usually conveys the strong message to employees that management does not trust them and therefore they need detailed and specific instructions on how not to behave. In brief, they are dumb and cannot be expected to exercise common sense. In my own experience common sense is equally distributed throughout the population.

Rules can never be written cleverly enough that they cannot be subverted by creative people and thus rendered useless. How many times have you seen a difficult employee essentially gaming rules in a fashion that produces behavior that was the opposite of what was intended.

Rules can also produce a troubling sort of mindlessness when people act upon them in a rigid, thoughtless fashion. See the opening paragraph. How many examples of poor customer service begin with a person saying, “You can’t do that because our policy is…”  What is legal (rules) is not always ethical, but doing what is ethical (principles) is usually legal.

Consider how much more powerful principles are when used in the workplace. Principles invite people to find their own personal manner of enacting them. Principles allow each person to examine the basic tenet and adjust her behavior.

Thus we must find a balance between the use of rules and the use of principles, keeping in mind that managing from principles is more difficult because it requires the thoughtful exercise of judgment and common sense. A question to consider when making this decision might be where do we seek the absolute adherence to rules versus where do we encourage the use of personal judgment driven by a guiding principle(s)?

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.