Why the Best Leaders Pay Attention to the Way that People Regard Rules
If you're a Tour de France fan you probably won't have missed the controversy this week around Alberto Contador's decision to break one of the strongly held (but unwritten) rules of cycling and take advantage of a rival's misfortune. By breaking that rule he won the 15th stage, took the yellow jersey and looks set to win Le Tour. (read more about that here)
Alberto's attitude to the rules of cycling has a useful lesson for leaders of all kinds, because it shows very clearly that different people can have very different ways of regarding rules. For leaders, this means that you simply cannot rely on the 'rules' of the organisation, unwritten or even very clearly laid out on posters all around the place, to guide what people do and how they do it.
The best leaders pay attention to the way that individuals around them regard rules. Fortunately, there are some useful guides and shortcuts that help us understand what is going on.
The Dutch cross-cultural communications expert Fons Trompenaars has shown that there is a cultural influence on the way that we regard 'rules'. Put really simply, people from Universalistic cultures focus more on rules and are more precise when defining rules and standards, whereas people from more Particularistic cultures expect rules to be adapted according to different situations. Trompenaars found some evidence that countries with Latin roots took a Particularistic view, although I don't think he specifically mentions Spain where Sr. Contador hails from. Another Dutch expert, Geert Hofstede, is also really worth reading on different cultural attitudes to rules.
In an everyday setting the work of Roger Bailey and Shelle Rose Charvet is pretty useful to help understand how members of your team are likely to respond to written and unwritten rules. They found that people tend to have one of four types of responses to rules in organisations:
1.) The majority of people follow a My/My pattern, believing that the same rules apply to everybody. They tend to be generally good for managing subordinates, stating clearly what they expect from others and abiding by the expected rues of behaviour themselves. My/My pattern people can sometimes fail to appreciate that what works for them will not always work for others and you'll need to lead them through this startling revelation!;
2.) A very small proportion of people follow a My/Blank pattern towards rules, with pretty structured behaviour themselves but giving almost no consideration to the impact of what they do on others. If you're leading one of these people, you need to understand that this is not a malicious thing and you may need to minimise or isolate any negative impacts of their 'eccentricity';
3.) A slightly bigger minority of people follow a No/My pattern about rules, struggling to follow guidelines themselves but being quite willing to pass on rules to others. If any of your team operate this pattern, they'll need some clear direction and perhaps some coaching from you around the lack of credibility that their apparent failure to 'walk the talk' can have;
4.) An appreciable minority of people operate a My/Your pattern towards rules, knowing the policies and guidelines to follow at work, but being reluctant to pass them on to others, which they would regard as arrogant or presumptive. This can create anxiety around them and stress for the person themselves. It's my belief that this pattern contributes to a lot of the problems that arise when a My/Your pattern person is promoted from being a first-line supervisor in a structured environment with very clearly laid out rules for all staff to follow, to a leadership position where the rules of behaviour are no longer provided by the organisational structure, but need to come from the team leader. You'll need to carefully coach these people into understanding that providing structure and direction for others is actually a very respectful and helpful act which most people (with the exceptions above) will appreciate.
1 year ago