Guidelines Work, Rules Don’t

When leading people, you need flexibility, not rigidity.

When it comes to managing people, what’s better—making rules or creating guidelines?

Rules are rigid and binding. They imply that they will be enforced and there will be negative consequences if they are not followed.

For example, if you see a ‘No Parking’ sign, you would likely assume if you parked there for too long, you might get towed.

Guidelines on the other hand are more flexible. They are like recommended best practices that encourage people to get their jobs done well without unnecessary restrictions.

When people have this freedom, they have the opportunity to come up with better—simpler, quicker—ways to get things done that nobody has thought of before. The guidelines show them the fastest, simplest, and safest ways to get things done that have been figured out so far.

By avoiding turning a guideline into a rule, you give them direction without stifling their opportunity for coming up with something better.

Just like in all areas, greatness comes from using your fundamentals. Guidelines give you a simple way of teaching the fundamentals as fast as possible so people can get to work doing great things. The harder they work, the more likely they are to come up with improvements.

To speed up growth and team development in my new expansion office in North Carolina in 1980, I was installing a program that the company’s fastest growing group was using in Houston, Texas.

I’ll never forget when the subject of rules and guidelines came up.

They told me that they did not have a lot of rules—even though they had a very defined system and sequence they put people through. They liked to use work philosophies instead of rules.

For example, they told me when explaining how something worked, they would tell their people, ‘We have a philosophy that if we do X, we’ll get better results most of the time.’ They told me they always had more success explaining their business principles as philosophies—not rules—because people were not as inclined to argue with philosophies as they were with rules.

Also, explaining something as a philosophy allowed people to buy in to the concept because it made sense to them as being more beneficial. And why would you argue with something that was more beneficial?

3 Major Problems With Rules

Every team and every company has a certain number of rules that are unavoidable if they are going to function successfully. Some of these rules are internal; some rules are external—like regulations, laws, and taxes. Knowing the rules is a healthy thing and provides safe boundaries for people to operate in.

But too many rules will create problems for you and your team that will limit your team’s spirit and growth.

Here are 3 major problems with rules:


1. Rules encourage short cuts.

As soon as people find out about a new rule, they look for a way around it.

How can I get an exception? Is there a way to beat the system? How can I find a workaround?

If there’s a “no blue jeans” policy in the office, someone will show up in them anyway and hope no one notices or they’ll get expensive, designer blue jeans and say, ‘Yes, but these are different.’

And you’re in for a real fight if you, for some reason, have to enforce new rules.

The reality is people don’t like rules, so the fewer the rules, the better.

2. You become an enforcer.

When you make a rule, you have to enforce and defend it.  You become a policeman.

That’s a tough role to play when you’re the leader who’s responsible for keeping your people motivated and positive.

You become as popular as the parking meter maid. People dread to see you coming, and that’s not good.

3. Teams are unmotivated and uninspired.

Rules put people in a box and limit their creativity.

When there are too many rules, people spend more time focused on how to get around the rules instead of how to get their jobs done. Time spent on getting the best results, innovating, and improving is wasted figuring out how to beat the system.

The best environments for growth will have very few rules and lots of freedom and incentives for great performance.

The best environments for growth will have very few rules and lots of freedom and incentives for great performance. Click To Tweet

4 Reasons Top Leaders Use Guidelines

Using more guidelines than rules has some huge benefits. That’s why top leaders prefer to use guidelines when possible.

Here are 4 reasons why guidelines are better:


1. People work because they want to—not because they are forced to.

Guidelines encourage people to participate, innovate, and implement.

They allow them to be creative and come up with their own solutions and ideas, so they are more invested in following through and implementing them. In turn, more gets done.

The opposite situation, the one you don’t want and has no chance to produce growth, is the one where everyone is nervous, worried, and looking over their shoulder. They constantly expect to be reprimanded for something they did wrong because there are so many rules they can’t keep up with them all.

There are companies with environments like that, but they are dead, dull, and underperforming.

2. High achievers perform better.

Normal people do normal things, but that’s not the formula for building a great organization. Every great team needs stars, and stars don’t fit into neat little boxes like everyone else. They need the freedom to be great.

If you have a go-getter who wants to set records and make a name for themselves, they’ll be more motivated to max out the guidelines.

With the right incentives, they’ll do more than anyone else has done before. And, in the process, they’ll raise the upper end of the guidelines and expand the range, so that others will do more as well.

This is how teams and companies change their DNA and go from good to great.

3. Future leaders develop.

Guidelines give people freedom to think. They aren’t robots following a manual.

They learn how to make good decisions, solve problems, and think on their feet!

The ones who excel often become future leaders on your team who already know how to stay on track and deal with things that pop up.

One example of this is legend Art Williams who at 26 years old was an assistant high school football coach of a legendary state championship team.

Art’s ability obviously stood out, so the head coach made him the head offensive coach. He gave him little to no direction at all. He just said to go make it happen. Of course he did, and the team had one of the most explosive offenses in the state.

Because Art was so successful, he got his own head coaching job soon after. He turned that program around so dramatically that they became state champions, and Art was voted Coach of the Year twice by age 30.

He got the position and opportunity to develop at an early age and did big things with it. Imagine what someone coming into your organization and having that kind of impact would mean for you.

4. Exceptions can be made.

Guidelines are true 80-90% of the time, but they are not designed to cover every situation.

The great thing is that most of the time guidelines let you know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.

Things will come second nature to you over time. Through repetition, improvements and refinements will come naturally. They will just occur to you and make you more efficient and productive.

If you keep following the guidelines and running the play over and over, you will naturally get better and better.

This is what they mean in sports, music, and all areas of performance development when they say, ‘no one escapes the repetitions.’

And instead of being pass-fail like rules, guidelines allow for flexibility. There is some wiggle room if you need it . . . and you will always find occasions that you need it. There’s always the promising exception that doesn’t fit the mold. But, if everything is an exception, then you’re never going to get anything done.

It’s like investing in the stock market, 90% of the time you will be going with the reputable, proven companies with solid fundamentals. But it’s smart to give yourself the freedom to take a chance or to speculate with 10% of your money on a company that may have slightly more risk but also the possibility of monstrously bigger returns if they hit it big.

The same principles work in running your business and developing your team. If you have a slow starter who is not as experienced but is a good person with a lot of potential, then flexible guidelines allow you to make exceptions in their favor, if you decide it’s warranted.

You don’t have to make exceptions, but when you want to, you can do it without undermining the trust of your team.

Great leaders drive great performance by balancing the line between being too rigid and too flexible. Too rigid means you are likely to get beat. Too flexible means you’re likely to fall apart.

Great leaders drive great performance by balancing the line between being too rigid and too flexible. Too rigid means you are likely to get beat. Too flexible means you’re likely to fall apart. Click To Tweet

You’ve Got to Have Heart

Unfortunately, leaders who have never thought about the guideline option get fixated on rules. In a way, it’s much easier because you don’t have to think. You just enforce the rules.

They start creating rules, teaching rules, enforcing rules—all the while restricting their options and dooming themselves to mediocrity.

That’s not the best option.

You have to factor in the human element and treat people as individuals—it’s called having heart! And, it actually allows you to do more.

You have to factor in the human element and treat people as individuals—it's called having heart! And, it actually allows you to do more. Click To Tweet

Even Jesus Knew the Difference Between Rules and Guidelines

There’s a great example from the Bible that I remember hearing for the first time in Church when I was in Elementary school. It’s stuck with me all these years.

Jesus and the disciples were gathering grain on a Sunday so they could eat.

Immediately, the self-righteous religious leaders came and attacked them saying, “Don’t you know it’s against the law to work on Sunday?” Jesus’ reply was, “The law was made for man and man was not made for the law.”

In other words, the law was not more important than the people.

The religious leaders had totally misinterpreted the spirit and intent of working on Sunday.

You see Jesus and the disciples weren’t working—they weren’t going to their day jobs on Sunday. They were simply taking care of their bodily needs—you know, they were hungry. There’s nothing wrong with feeding yourself. Yes, gathering grains might technically be considered work, but it’s not the same as going to work to earn an income.

How to Use Guidelines for Success

Shift your focus from following procedures to getting results and throw the rule book away. Believe me, it’s a relief!

Here’s how to use guidelines:

1. Rally your team around a common goal.

Give your team something to work towards.

What record do you want to beat? How many sales do you want to close this month? Do you have a prospecting target? What areas can you improve?

Setting a target acts as a guideline for what you expect and inspires your people to compete and work as a team.

I have tons of content on goal setting. If you’re interested, check out one or more of the following:

No Motivation, No Goals, No Dreams, Nothing

Achieve Your Life Goals & Ignite Your Passion 

How to Set Goals in Life for Doing Great Things

Creating an Action Plan for Your Goal

2. Have a simple game plan for greatness.

Everyone needs to know their role. Explain what they need to be doing. Let them know how they are going to be evaluated. Give them simple guidelines for getting their work done based off of the most successful ways it’s been done in the past so they know they are following a proven pattern of success.

I’ve heard it described like a train going down a track.

Everyone is on the train. They all know their position on the train and what they need to be doing to keep the train moving. Everyone knows what they need to do to move up. As long as everybody stays in their position doing what they’re supposed to be doing and working to move up, the train is going to sail right down the track.

3. Reward good activity.

Find ways to recognize people’s strengths and reward good activity.

If you see someone doing a great job, tell them! This will encourage them to keep doing it that way, and it gives them a guideline for how you want it to continue to be done in the future.

Leaders need to spend massive amounts of time thinking about motivation. Find ways to create extra incentives every place you can. More competition and more incentives equal greater growth.

4. Give examples.

When you give someone examples, it helps people understand what’s possible and motivates them.

They think, ‘If she can do it, so can I!’ or ‘If he that did that much, surely I can do even more!’

Examples and stories are one of the absolute best ways to set guidelines for your team. They eliminate the question of, ‘Can it be done?’

When people see others who have done it before, they realize they can do it too. And, by observing how others have done it, they pick up a clear picture and extra ideas on how they can do it.

Create a Winning Environment

Leaders excel when they make time to focus on finding and reinforcing positives, which builds confidence and enthusiasm.

Leaders excel when they are make time to focus on finding and reinforcing positives, which builds confidence and enthusiasm. Click To Tweet

When you are relieved of enforcing rules, you can focus on production, growth, and income and spend more time helping your people develop.

That’s a big key to creating a winning environment and becoming a top leader. It’s not about spending the bulk of your time enforcing rules like nuns striking the hands of students with a ruler for misbehaving.

Since people aren’t perfect, leaders need flexibility in working with them because, let’s face it, the leaders aren’t perfect either. Guidelines give you that flexibility—that’s why they work. Rules don’t. So toss the rule book, and start setting guidelines instead!

Did you like this post? Do you have anything to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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