Bad Rules Are Getting in the Way of Your Good Leadership

Language is truly a double-edged sword.  Language allows us to cooperate, plan, coordinate, describe the future, talk about the past, and it even allows us to describe interactions between the environment and behavior so that a person does not need to experience direct consequences to learn (e.g. “Don’t swim in the lake, there are alligators.”).  The other side of the sword is that language allows us to create rules.  Not all rules are bad; the alligator example above might be a very helpful rule and in fact, most social behaviors are rule governed.  However, the rules we set for ourselves, or even say to others, can work against our otherwise best efforts as leaders.  The rules we say to ourselves often become antecedents that reliably prompt us to behave in certain ways.  Those same uttered rules can also change the way we interpret or value our own behavior or the actions of others.  That is to say, rules can disconnect us from experiencing the consequences that are truly occuring in the environment. This can lead to rigid and ineffective leadership behaviors.

Here are some examples of what are generally considered bad rules:

  • “Some people just can’t be taught.”
  • “Safety is a condition of working here; I shouldn’t have to worry about it.”
  • “The company does not care about me, so why should I care about it.”
  • “I am the CEO; I don’t have to follow the rules.”
  • “I had to figure it out on my own, so why should I help.”

There are several important characteristics about these rules worth noting. First, rules like these are generally developed based on a person’s past experience with punishment. By following these types of rules, a person can escape or avoid further negative consequences. Second, rules like these numb a person to the actual consequences occurring in the environment.  Take for example the first rule stated above. If a leader has a rule that, “some people just can’t be taught” and is put in front of a person whom he/she considers some people, then that leader may not take the necessary steps and time to train that person to the highest level, and may not recognize the performer’s improvement as positively reinforcing. Lastly, rules like these decrease a leader’s effectiveness. Without the ability to recognize the ongoing behavioral consequences in their environment, leaders will not be able to adjust their behavior to have the best influence on others. They will be stuck repeating behaviors that produce subpar results.

What do you do about bad rules and how do you keep them from negatively effecting your leadership?

Bad rules, and all thoughts or self-talk, can and should be recognized as behavior—and nothing more. The next time you find yourself living by bad rules, try one of these simple suggestions to help prevent them from affecting your leadership:

  • Acknowledge the rule as just a thought. You can do this by saying, “That’s interesting—I just had the thought that…”
  • Test the rule. Ask yourself, “Is it always true?” or “Am I really living my values if I act on what I just thought?”
  • Thank your brain for creating the rule. Say something like, “Thanks brain. That will really be helpful in this situation.”
  • Ask yourself, “Would it be helpful in the long run if I acted on that?” or “Does this rule always lead to behavior I’m proud of?”
  • Repeat the rule over and over again and ask yourself what you notice about the rule now that you have repeated it. 

Any of the above behaviors will help prevent rules like these from distracting you from what is actually occurring in the natural environment. Using one or more of these tools will not prevent thoughts like these from coming up again. What it will do is allow leaders to stay in the moment and not be trapped by ineffective rules. Behaviors will be shaped by natural contingencies and come in contact with more positive reinforcement. While this skill will take repetition, it will also help bad rules from getting in the way of your good leadership.

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.