How Can Rules Set Employees Up For Failure?

As leaders we often think that making rules is the way to solve problems. After all, rules are great, aren’t they? They help hold employees accountable for all kinds of activities. If that is true, why can rules become so problematic? One reason may be that rules are often created within one department, without consideration of the impacts on other departments. The classic example is a rule that is created through the safety department or one that is created in the operations department. Let’s suppose that a safety department creates a rule that requires all employees to stop work after 9.5 hours, regardless of the circumstances. Let’s also suppose that the operations department creates a production quota and ties the definition of job accomplishment (and job security) to that requirement. This rule requires employees to meet or exceed production goals to continue gainful employment and advancement within the organization. The rule in the first example is presumably created to protect workers, while the rule in the second example is designed to maximize productivity.  Unfortunately these rules may seem great on their own, but when tied together it is easy to see the impending conflict.

In a utopian world 9.5 hours would be enough time for each employee or team to meet or exceed production goals, thereby ensuring successful job accomplishment, and hopefully continued gainful employment. In reality, multiple factors could cause slowdowns in production throughout the day, resulting in employees being faced with a choice: break the safety rule in order to meet production objectives, or comply with the safety rule and risk reprimand (or worse) for inadequate performance. Either way, the employee is faced with a losing proposition.

One way to potentially mitigate this type of situation is for rule-making to be conducted using a system approach where safety and operations collectively decide what is feasible. Perhaps 9.5 hours isn’t enough time to get the job done when non-routine disruptions occur, or perhaps the production quotas exceed human capacity. Employees may push harder and harder to get the job done, cutting corners, and making mistakes. These mistakes could lead to an injury or mishap. On the other hand, by working together using a system-oriented approach more realistic goals could be created, which harmonize the objectives of safety and production into an integrated definition of successful job accomplishment.

In my next post I will discuss the concept of rule-making by using a guideline-oriented approach to provide more flexibility to leaders and employees. If you liked this post and would like to receive regular updates, please use our contact form and type “blog updates” in the subject line to avoid missing posts in the future.

Thanks, and have a great and safe week!