Tyranny Of Rules Or Freedom To Choose?

Rules are a fascinating topic to explore. And an important one. The rules of an organization actively shape culture. They also determine how unwritten rules evolve. For better or worse, our lives are shaped by rules (more on that in a future post).

The challenge—for many of us—is how to navigate the rules that we are exposed to. What we learn at an early age is that rules—theoretically—are to be followed. We also learn at an early age that some people are better at doing that than others. There are those who gleefully adhere to the rules (and delight even more in enforcing them for everyone else) and there are those who even more joyfully ignore and flaunt the rules.

As with so many things, the sweet spot is somewhere between rigorous adherence and oppositional rejection of the rules. This means that the answer isn’t black or white, but can be found in the shadows of the various shades of grey that lie in the middle. And so once again, the pragmatic problem we all face is “How do I figure out when to follow the rules, when to break them, and when to just ignore them and pretend they didn’t happen?”

This is an excellent question, and one that lands firmly in the orbit of the work I did for my PhD dissertation. To save you from reading more than 200 pages of reference-laden thesis, I’m going to try for a much more practical explanation here.

What we need to wrestle with first and foremost is the question of what kind of organization we actually work in. Because organizations approach rules differently, this results in both different expectations and different realities in terms of what we can do, what we should do and what we can get away with.

At the risk of trying to explain the complexities of the world with a two-by-two matrix, there are in fact two dimensions that it’s helpful to use when thinking about this conversation. What lies at the intersection of these dimensions are broad-brushed stereotypes, I acknowledge. But they’re useful broad-brushed stereotypes, so I’m going to go there.

The first dimension to consider is the orientation of the organization. Specifically, does the organization lead with process, or does it lead with politics? Process-based organizations emphasize the formal, written rules, and a level of consistency and compliance in how things get done. Put simply, they value formality over relationships. Politically-based organizations emphasize interactions and human dynamics over structured process; they are less about consistency, and far more about pragmatism. The unwritten rules are what typically dominates.

That’s not to say that either of these orientations are bad (although you may have personal preferences for one over the other). They just are. I’ve known really capable, competent and high-performing process-based organizations, and I’ve known bureaucratic nightmares. I’ve also been exposed to (admittedly fewer) collaborative, responsive and flexible organizations that can’t spell “process” but nonetheless have tremendous cultures and customer relationships. And yes, I’ve seen more than my share of organizations that represent politically disingenuous rabbit holes, where choices are based upon what’s fashionable and who happens to be most in favour today.

That’s what defines the other dimension at work: is the organization functional or dysfunctional? That can be a difficult label to apply, so let’s consider an operational definition: do the actions of the organization focus most on what is in the best interests and long-term health of the organization, or does it more emphasize the short-term personal interests of the people within it?

Overlay these two constructs, and you get a pretty good map of what life is like within the organization, and how you might approach and respond to any given situation successfully (or whether responding is even a reasonable or wise strategy).

As a general rule, functional organizations—because they tend to work well—emphasize and reinforce the dominant rule system. You want to stay within the guardrails, because doing otherwise is contrary and disruptive.

If the rules emphasize process, then your autonomy is going to be constrained. Do what the process asks of you, because that’s the functional response. An interview that I did with a senior executive in one of the few examples of this I could find (they were an audit firm) willingly gave up autonomy and the will to exercise executive fiat because the system did what it was supposed to do, and did it well.

I’ve had the rare privilege of witnessing functional politically-driven organizations as well. They key difference here is that they don’t flout the rules, per se; they dynamically judge and adapt to each situation to do what is best for both the organization and the customer they happen to be dealing with. Discussions are a collaborative, cooperative exploration of the situation, the options and the most appropriate path forward in that particular instance. The biggest difference is that these organizations don’t function based on past precedent. Just because we’ve done it before doesn’t mean we aren’t going to debate it again this time.

Dysfunctional organizations are a different animal. Even in process-based dysfunctional organizations, in my experience, there are politics at work. And in politically dysfunctional organizations, politics is the only way anything gets done. The issue is what gets done, and how. The dysfunctional organization is dysfunctional largely in measure to how much it serves the interests of a person or group, over what best addresses the requirements of the organization and the customer. What is fundamentally happening is that personal interests are displacing those of the organization.

A central question of how to act here is: do I act at all? And I don’t mean that flippantly. A hallmark of any dysfunctional organization is that its actions serve someone; that someone probably isn’t you. So acting—where that event is contrary to the interests of those the organization is designed to serve—can be a career limiting move. Defensive behaviour exists for a reason; if I can’t do what I believe is right, it may be safer not to act.

That’s not to say that operating within dysfunction is necessarily sustainable. But you may, for very pragmatic reasons, not have a choice for now. This means is that—whether you’re adhering the process or aligning with the politics—you need to follow the expectations that exist organizationally, even if those realities don’t serve the organization so much as they do a subset of it.

For most of us, we were first exposed to these dynamics in school. They are—for better or for worse—the dynamics of the playground. What gets done, how it happens, who has influence and who is ignored are all a product of a political overlay of how things work. In healthy environments, there are relatively functional behaviours. The more dysfunctional or devious the dynamics, the more manipulative and Machiavellian the behaviours emerge.

But all of this raises the question of: do we have a choice here? Are other options available to us? Is there another way that we can play this?

The answer to that is, “yes.” With a follow-on qualification of, whether you want to—and how you want to—depends on a number of factors.

Those factors are both organizational and personal because what we are basically orchestrating is a dance between what is organizationally possible and what is personally necessary. And in any given situation, there will be a gradual assessment of what is doable on each dimension.

Choosing to act as an individual is—broadly speaking—what is operationally meant by the idea of having agency. Agency speaks to a level of independence, autonomy and emphasis on action that rests with the person, not with the environment. It characterizes how much we are willing to stand up, step out and be seen in approaching different situations. It is also influenced by the degree to which taking action can actually make a difference.

The really interesting thing is that this inserts a nuanced layer inside of the two-by-two matrix I described earlier. In a world that can be process-based or politically-oriented, and that can be functional or dysfunctional, there actually isn’t much room to move.

If you are in a functional organization, you are most likely going to be successful in working within the system. If it’s a process-oriented system, that means you suborn what flexibility you have to the superior results that consistent and effective process make possible. And if you’re in a politically-driven system, you allow group dynamics to prevail rather than personal perspectives.

In a dysfunctional organization, all bets are off. Unless you are one of the holders of political power and influence—and chances are that if you are, you either didn’t find this article or gave up reading several paragraphs ago—taking action bears risk. Exercising agency in dysfunctional organizations is only really possible where you either wield sufficient power—or instil sufficient fear—that you won’t be opposed, or you don’t care about and are prepared to deal with the consequences.

It’s between these two dimensions that the opportunity for agency exists. In organizations that aren’t completely functional—but lean that way—individual players can nudge behaviours and action in directions that are positive and beneficial. In organizations that aren’t completely dysfunctional—but you can see it from here—it is possible for individuals to twig conscience and encourage tendencies in ways that are more positive and largely beneficial.

In other words, agency lives at the margins. The need to step up and stand out is a form of course correction. It’s a way of making a difference, where a difference is both needed and possible. At the extremes, the organizational dynamics and political forces drown out the opportunity for free will. At the edges, even in an environment where tendencies may be to the dysfunctional and disruptive, appropriate and judicious guidance can make a difference and shift towards what starts to look a little more functional.

This means if that the tyranny of rules isn’t a fixed place, with defined boundaries. The rules may be written or unwritten. They may be effective or they may undermine. But in all instances, they are what they are.

Freedom exists when we can understand the rules, we can interpret them accordingly, and we can see a way to leverage our capabilities, our relationships and our influence in a way that delivers a different outcome. That requires a level of reflexivity; we need to understand the organization, know ourselves, and navigate our environment in a way that emphasizes what is possible. This represents the ultimate in situational awareness. We need to read where the organization tends, what a situation demands and what we can personally accomplish.

This still requires choosing to take action. There are circumstances when that is advisable. There are a few situations where it is essential. And there are contexts where that is downright dangerous. Knowing what we are dealing with, what we can get away with and what we can live with is what ultimately makes the difference.

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