Rules and policies are always a topic of discussion in leadership circles. How many rules and how many policies are necessary to keep people motivated and engaged? When do they actually harm and hinder rather than help? Ron Edmondson shares some excellent thoughts on how to deal with this critical issue.

Originally published by Ron Edmondson

I’m not a huge fan of most policies and a majority of them, in my opinion, need someone to improve them. It could be because I’m not a very good rule follower, but I honestly don’t think many policies work as well as they were intended when created.

Policies are defined as a course, plan or principle of action. They are designed, by definition, to offer a sense of control. In theory, policies are to make things better and, I will admit, they are a necessary part of dealing with people in an organizational setting. Without policies we would have chaos.

I realize even the title of this post has some people already objecting. It will make some of my rule followers already. So, in fairness, maybe the title is too strong. I probably should say I hate bad policies, because that’s more the reality. I love good policies. Okay, love is too strong a word also. A “wet paint” sign to me is an invitation to test it. But I don’t hate them.

It is, however, my firm conviction that many organizations (especially churches) have too many policies that need to improve. And, most likely, some policies that simply need to disappear.

My problem with polices is they often interrupt progress rather than enhance it. If we are not careful, a policy may control the success you want to see as a leader.

I personally would rather have chaos with no policies than a bunch of really bad policies.

When I arrived at an established church we had a policy – voted on by the church in a business meeting at some point – on folded chairs. True story. It told the procedures to do if someone borrowed folding chairs from the church. We probably no longer even had the chairs of which the policy spoke, but there was still a policy in place.

Granted, policies may make sense when they are created. Yet, as we look at the issue from a bigger picture, they can even appear comical over time. Obviously, we can figure out what led to a folding chair policy. Someone borrowed chairs. They didn’t bring them back or treat them as they should. Therefore, to prevent this from ever occurring again people wrote a policy.

4 reasons to hate policies:

Policies eliminate a sense of freedom.

Policies, by nature, are methods of control. Even for those who love rules and want everything spelled out for them, policies can add a sense of burden as you attempt (or don’t attempt) to live up to their demands. Show me an environment with a bunch of policies and you can almost always find some stressed out people.

Policies limit ability to think outside the box.

Policies can limit thoughts to a pre-determined outcome, which keeps the random and potentially explosive thoughts from developing. They can limit people’s ability to dream, explore, redesign and imagine. If everything is spelled out for people they have no reason to actually think for themselves.

Policies stall attempts at excellence.

The parameters of a policy often produce an atmosphere of mediocrity. Everything is clear. Planned. Written. Solved. No need for improvement here until someone finds another way to mess up, of course, then we need to add another policy.

Policies curtail the pursuit of progress.

The weight of meeting the demands of policies can take valuable energy from pursuing things, which have the opportunity of producing greater progress.

And, my suggestions?

In lieu of policies (for everything), 4 ways to improve them:

Handle individual problems individually.

Ask yourself if the policy is needed for everyone or just a few people. Is it needed for everyone to keep us organized, effective or legal? If so, write the best policy you can for everyone. (And be willing to tweak it with time.)

When the answer is it’s only for a few people, rather than create a new policy to control an issue, deal directly with the individuals who need more control. For example, in the case of the chair policy I mentioned above, rather than write a policy – go get the chairs! (They are likely in the garage.)

Treat individual people individually.

If a team has more than one person, then there will be more than one type of person on the team. Do you follow me?

Policies tend to treat everyone the same, which ignores individuality and personality differences.

For example, some people may need to be in the office to get things done, for example. They may need help disciplining their time. Others may work best when the schedule and work environment is more flexible. Put me in a coffee shop and my productivity grows. Don’t write a policy that makes everyone “work” the same. Be willing to individualize things those issues.

Yes, I realize this is where it can get messy and even be abused. You’ll have to guard against that. This is why I like to let people write some of their own and job descriptions. Everyone is subject to accountability but we all agree on the front end the structure that works best for them.

Lead more than you manage.

Management is more about implementing policies and seeing they are adhered to completely. We need good management. In fact, knowing my own shortcomings, I’m a huge advocate for good management.

Leadership, however, sets a vision and guides people towards it. Less policies are needed in that process. Manage when you must. Lead whenever you can. You’ll get the best out of people.

Purposely allow for mistakes in your culture. 

Policies are easier to measure. They often have a pass/fail assessment attached to them. Again, they are less “messy”. When you have fewer policies you even have to allow for grace and forgiveness.

People, however, learn best from their failures when they know they can explore and create without the repercussions. The fear of breaking a policy controls more than empowers this.

My bottom line on policies:

I’m not suggesting we can do without policies or that we should even try. I am suggesting we work to improve them. Policies should not be the “go to” solution to fix a problem. Most problems in an organization don’t need a new policy. Granted, leading is more difficult without policies. Yet, with less policies you’ll almost always have greater opportunities to experience new and exciting realities.

Here’s a challenge: Look through your policies and rules find where you need to improve. See which were created to control people as a reaction to a problem. See which should have been handled individually. Finally, see where a policy no longer needed.

The real challenge is to lead towards an environment which empowers more than it controls.