Top Decision Makers Lead with Reason Rather Than Rules

Think about the last time, you heard someone say. “I’m sorry, the rules say we can’t do that.” What you were trying to accomplish was perfectly reasonable. Yet a policy had been put into place to prevent it. We sometimes laugh at the absurdity of these situations. But we also feel an underlying frustration at our lack of control.

Over the past twenty years, we have witnessed an explosion of rules and regulations, seemingly guiding our every need and desire. There are two reasons for this: 1) The introduction of rules-based technology. At its essence, every line of computer code is a rule that instructs the application how to operate. Even with artificial intelligence, this will always be the case. Of course, digital immigrants and digital natives perceive this situation differently. After they laugh at the absurdity, most digital immigrants will attempt to find a work-around. Many digital natives will simply accept that it cannot be accomplished. (This is a symptom of what I’ve been calling “menu-driven thinking” for the past ten years.)

2) We are becoming increasingly risk-adverse. Combine our litigiousness, our political correctness and our natural desire for complete comfort, convenience and security, and it’s just easier to create a rule rather than deal with the potential for an uncomfortable incident or outcome. Of course, the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head anytime we create one of these rules. For examples of this, look no further than every law ever passed by the legislature.

But here’s the thing, the best decision makers know how to navigate these obstacles and create an environment of trust, loyalty and smart decision making. How? Here’s what I’ve learned in 30 years of observing and interviewing them:

They are respectful of bureaucracy, but not stifled by it. Effective decision makers work within the system, while offering alternatives to policies and practices that get in the way of reasonable action. They balance diplomacy with determination.

The best decision makers encourage candid communication between those on their team. They point out to colleagues the value of reasoned discussion and are careful to remain balanced in their own arguments. They expect their colleagues to do the same. When someone suggests a rule to “fix the problem,” they ask that person to develop a proposal arguing both sides and along with the time and financial impact of implementing such a rule. That practice, in itself, discourages impulsive rules from being promulgated.

They demand smart decision making. They recognize the ease and temptation with which people can slide into hiding behind safe rules rather than pushing for the best outcome. They are intolerant of comments like, “There is nothing I can do because of the rules.” While they never encourage rule breaking, they will compel those around them to “get creative” when coming up with solutions to the problem at hand.

They argue successfully against the implementation of rules based on anomalies. They do so by pointing out that a one-time incident does not a pattern make. They also identify for those wanting to implement the rule, the impact it will have on operations, overhead, customer relations, and morale. After all, productivity always suffers in a rule-bound bureaucracy.

They choose their battles. The best leaders know you can’t “go to the mat” in dealing with every rule that defies logic. They encourage those on their team to keep daily challenges in perspective. In other words, a rule is not the solution to every problem. At the same time, they are not afraid to use political capital in strategic ways to argue for exceptions and support those around them.

The bottom line? The best decision makers lead with reason rather than rules and compel others to do the same.

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