Today’s post is an excerpt from the cutting room floor. It was in an early draft of my upcoming book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (pre-order your copy by CLICKING HERE). It covers how to lead through guidelines rather than leading through rules.
We need guidance during challenging times. We need something to keep us within healthy and productive boundaries. We are human and make mistakes. Having personal guidelines that we live our lives by will remind us how we want to behave and keeps us safe and on track.
This does not have to be a detailed list of do’s and don’ts. A laundry list of rules and regulations is not practical. Instead, a judgment-based approach that can be broadly applied to any situation is much more flexible, manageable, and applicable. Every situation is different and each decision we face will have a variety of new and unpredictable factors involved.
But if we have judgment-based guidelines to govern our conduct, we can apply them to any situation we face instead of having to frantically search a list of do’s and don’ts only to find that particular situation is not covered. The simpler the guidelines, the more powerful they can be.
I learned how powerful simple guidelines can be while I was a cadet at West Point. In our regulations book we had over 180 different infractions that we could be written up and disciplined for. They were overly specific. They ranged from “Having lights on after lights out” to “Underage drinking” to “Laundry folded improperly.” If there was something we could possibly do wrong, there was a disciplinary code for it.
Administering this code of regulations was difficult to say the least. If you wanted to write somebody up for an infraction, you first had to know all the regulations then you had to find the correct disciplinary code to write your report.
If you were unfortunate enough to have a situation where someone you were writing up had committed an offense that did not have a specific disciplinary code assigned to it, you had to write a lengthy explanation of the offense and include the document codes for infractions that were “in close proximity” to the offense. What a nightmare!
Then one day someone had a brilliant idea. They realized that this method of enforcing discipline was overly proscriptive in defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior had created an unwieldy system. They simplified those 180 infractions down to two. They were “Error in judgment with minor effect” and “Error in judgment with major effect.” The leaders in the organization were empowered to make decisions and mete out justice according to a descriptive code of conduct versus a proscriptive one.
The disciplinary system became more efficient and “outlier” offenses that previously had no associated code could be quickly and effectively dealt with without a huge burden of defining precedent and related offenses. Those two regulations became the guidelines by which we governed our behaviors as cadets.
What does this mean for you?
How do you articulate performance standards in your organization? Is it a long list of rules, standards, metrics, and infractions or goals? Or is it a set of behavioral guidelines you want your team to adhere to?
I’d submit that the former is particularly difficult to manage and you might want to ask your team members how they feel about working in such an environment.
The latter is harder to manage because you *will* have people who deviate from the guideline (because it’s not overly specific and it’s subject to interpretation). In the long run, though, you’ll create a culture where those standards become the norm. People feel empowered to act within those guidelines and their sense that you trust them goes up dramatically.
Take some time to evaluate how your team functions and how you set standards. If you can loosen the collar a little for your folks, they’ll operate more freely and the environment of “gotcha!” can eventually disappear.
You hire people because they’re smart. Try giving them a little latitude to demonstrate their smarts and judgment. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
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