When Rule-Following Is and Is Not Negotiable


It is hard to overstate the value of instructions, or, more broadly, rules, in working with both things and other people. They often are an efficient way of establishing new behavior without having to shape the behavior by directly reinforcing successive approximations to the desired response or responses. Imagine having to shape the behavior of assembling a toy robot with over a thousand pieces! Much better to have a set of rules (directions) to go by.  However, it is important for managers and everyone else to recognize the difference between two types of rules.

On the one hand, some rules represent starting points – means of getting behavior going. In this latter case, once the behavior is up and going, it is desirable for the behavior to then be developed and further elaborated by the natural consequences that follow it. This can be thought of as allowing the rule-established behavior to bump into natural consequences. If, for example, I receive a set of rules (or instructions) on how to assemble a widget, in the course of actually assembling said widget, I may discover a more efficient way to do so. Under these conditions, continuing to follow the more inefficient original rules would be counterproductive to all concerned. In many situations workers discover better ways of doing things even though these ways are not consistent with the original rules for accomplishing the job. In such cases, rules should be flexible and allow creative solutions to problems. Indeed, anyone who adheres overly rigidly to some rules may become an obstacle to progress and profitability. 

On the other hand, there are other rules that require rigid adherence. The technician with his finger on the “fire missile” button has to adhere to a very rigid set of rules! In more everyday situations, workers often are instructed to complete a task in a given way because research has shown that an injury is less likely if done in the instructed way. But in the process of completing the task, the worker may learn that there is a more efficient, but also less safe, way of completing the task. Even though there may be potential short-term gains in using the less safe method, the originally instructed method has greater positive consequences overall because it makes injury less likely when completing the task. In such cases, it is to everyone’s advantage to reinforce close adherence to the rules.

Rules do control behavior. It is important for those creating the rules be clear about what the rule’s function is to be and how and why it should be followed. Rules are, or should be, negotiable when they get behavior going efficiently so that natural consequences can further shape the behavior. Rules are less to non-negotiable when failures to follow them is truly counterproductive to the rule follower and to the rule developer. 






Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.