How rules can undermine good judgement

How rules can undermine good judgement

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During a recent lengthy morning commute, I listened to the Knowledge Project podcast, where host Shane Parrish interviewed Aaron Dignan. Aaron’s a coach and author of Brave New Work. There were a lot of good insights, and one in particular grabbed my attention.

They were talking about how misusing compliance undermines people’s judgement. During a recent gig, I rubbed up against the imbalance created by what Aaron calls ‘compliance theatre’, and their point spoke directly to my discomfort.

Plenty of situations require checklists and rigorous policies. However, the spillover into areas they don’t belong happens all too often and can lead to the opposite result from what’s intended.

Whether it’s a factory floor, employee guidelines or the activity commonly flagged as ‘brand’, rule creep can undermine good judgement and create a compliance nanny state where I’m not accountable for what happened because I was following the policy.

The right thing goes right out the window. A point an online story I read recently highlighted.

A family contacted police when their dad didn’t return from visiting a property he had for sale. And when they checked, they found the man unconscious on the floor after a stroke.

A real estate agent had also visited and let themselves in using the lockbox key. After seeing the man unconscious, they left without contacting emergency services because they thought he was dead or drunk.

Once back at their office, they followed internal procedure and completed a feedback form reporting the incident, and when contacted for comment after the man died, maintained they had ‘no liability.’

Hopefully, examples in your business aren’t matters of life or death, but you’re sure to have some. So how do good sense and common decency get torpedoed by an over-zealous compliance mindset?

Back to Aaron and Shane from the podcast”:

So one of the things you said there was, we put procedures in place to lower variation, to reduce mistakes because we’re trying to avoid mistakes at some level. One thing I noticed is that procedures eventually circumvent judgment. So what happens is if you follow the procedure, you never get in trouble. Even if what you’re doing is absolutely the wrong outcome and you should know it’s going to lead to the wrong outcome, you can just throw your hands up and be like, “Well, I followed the procedure, so therefore I’m absolved of all accountability for exercising judgment. - SHANE
You are essentially saying I’m compliant so it’s the bureaucracy’s fault, it’s the system’s fault. And that’s because you’ve given away your right to think or your right to be accountable, your right to be responsible in the ecosystem … Yeah, as soon as you get into process and compliance theater, everything goes downhill pretty quickly. - AARON

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Absent rules, other avenues can encourage people’s endeavour in the right direction. For example, people are far less likely to make bad decisions when they understand what’s important, the values and have loose yet pointy behaviours to follow.

I know laying down rules and watching vigilantly for people who don’t follow them is easier. But it consumes energy better used in other ways.

There is too much activity to make rules for it all. So perhaps instead, follow the author and organisation theorist Margaret Wheatley’s advice, “If people are free to make their own decisions, guided by a clear organisational identity for them to reference, the whole system develops greater coherence and strength.”

That coherence and strength translate into value stored in your brand. And the energy released when people’s confidence in their judgement isn’t undermined or decimated by unnecessary rules is the stuff of engagement, robust retention and generally better outcomes for the whole organisation.

See you next time.

P. S. An update on how my using a ‘done list‘ from the last article is going. Short-take is I love it. At the end of the day the list of things I’ve accomplished, big and small, gives me a satisfied feeling that merely crossing things off my ‘get to do’ list never has. Sure it’s all in my head, but then most things are so I’ll take the good feelings and keep on going.

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