The wealth of our society depends on how productive we are. However, since 1950, our productivity has gone down while the number of rules has increased. Doubling standards of living only takes three percent yearly productivity growth, but unfortunately, the number of procedures and approvals has gone up by 350 percent in the last 15 years.
Workplace rules often discourage cooperation, and this affects our productivity. These rules usually focus on clarity, measurement, or accountability, which are well-intentioned but can hinder our efforts. Instead, cooperation makes the whole team better than each individual part.
Imagine a relay race. Even the fastest runners can fail if they can’t pass the baton properly. Rules based on clarity, accountability, or measurement might not ensure success. For example, a rule based on clarity might make a runner ask, “How far should I run?” A rule based on accountability might create a new position just to pass the baton. A rule based on measurement might make a runner focus only on speed, neglecting the teamwork needed.
Too many rules create obstacles instead of encouraging cooperation. Rules should make it personally beneficial to be cooperative. Are your rules making cooperation worthwhile?
Company rules are made to protect the business, but some can harm it. Every rule takes away the opportunity for employees to make choices, making them feel less ownership over their work. Rules that focus on inputs instead of outputs create busyness without good results.
Some rules decrease trust and increase hassles for most employees to protect the business from a few offenders. Others focus on tasks instead of results, creating micromanagement and suffocating innovation.
Nike’s experiment with two garment factories showed that fewer rules and more freedom led to higher productivity. Employees with fewer rules feel more ownership in their work, and this commitment brings better results.
In conclusion, when there are too many rules, employees feel their judgment isn’t trusted. A healthy culture balances rules and principles, using rules only when necessary and supporting values when judgment can be applied. Compliant cultures suffocate with rules, while dedicated cultures thrive with values.