Friday, July 29, 2011

Spirit of the Law

In religious and legal circles, there's often a discussion about the spirit of the law. Look at some of the debates about the US Constitution and what the founding fathers intended. Do we read it literally or as a set of principles? Sometimes the rules, regulations, commandments and laws are ambiguous or it's tough to discern how to apply it to today's situation. Therefore, we want to understand the principles behind the rules, to understand the spirit of the law.

Jesus of Nazareth showed this in his teaching about some Old Testament laws: "You have heard 'thou shalt not commit murder' but I tell you that anyone who hates his brother is guilty of murder..."

Similarly, in business, we should want people to understand the reasoning behind our policies and rules. It's impossible to write a policy that will cover every possible scenario in order to be fair with people. Such a rule would cover all 4 walls of a medium-size room, and still miss an exception or loophole. If you teach people why the policy is in place, and what it's intended to accomplish you do several things:

  • They learn how to apply the principles behind the policy to similar situations. I've had discussions with staff members after asking what to do with a customer who hasn't paid yet. I give them the answer and often they will then ask, "Why?" I can explain the reasoning behind this circumstance and why a different customer might be treated differently in a similar delinquent incident. Not everyone wants to know why. Some just want to know what to do, for various reasons related to their personality or learning style.
  • When you have people who want to understand more, they can become informal leaders and advocates of the values and principles under which you want the organization to operate. You've cloned yourself and expanded your network in creating the culture that acts on similar values that you hold.
  • It allows others to hold each other accountable to the organization's goals and intentions. This can increase their sense of contribution, involvement, commitment and engagement.
  • It builds trust because you are transparent, and willing to hold your integrity accountable based on your actions. If you never explain the values and principles behind your decisions, no one can say you've violated them and you haven't lost any integrity. Of course, this is cowardice. It also leads to situation ethics, complaints of favoritism, wishy-washiness, arbitrariness and other vices of poor leadership.
  • Not developing your staff in this way gives a false sense of your authority and power, a reliance on you and neediness on their part. It is at best paternalistic and at worst oppression.
  • It indicates a level of trust in that you don't need to micro-manage every situation or every individual through a rule or policy. You're trying to focus on the priorities and the real needs, and not worrying too much about every rare exception that may arise. Don't create a rule that effects everyone if everyone is not influenced by it or involved in it--like attendance, internet usage, etc. If you have a few bad apples, deal directly with them without creating a rule that's going to stymie others or show distrust in the majority that are trustworthy.
When you do explain the principles and values behind the policies, procedures, rules and regulations, do so after the main content is given. Thus, those that don't want to know haven't fallen asleep by the time they got to the relevant portion of the communication.

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