Rules & the Power of Trust

In a school district in New York, the power of trust – and the menace of mistrust – were demonstrated in an ironic way some years ago.

Until that time, administrators took time off during the summer whenever they chose.  They were trusted to put in as much work as was necessary to wind up the old school year and prep for the new one.  On average, they took about three weeks.

But the superintendent of schools, wary of the potential for abuse, decided a policy was needed.  After all, without a rule or a guideline, unconscientious principals might take the whole summer off.  So he instituted a policy:  administrators shall take no more than four weeks off during the summer.

And guess what?  They took them.

So the district lost an average of a week’s worth of work from each of its administrators.

Now who can blame the superintendent for being “responsible” in the face of potential abuse of the system?  Had you been in his shoes, might you have done the same thing?  Whoa – there’s a policy missing here!  Policies are important!

Here’s the problem:  the benefits of creating rules are immediately obvious.  In a word, compliance.  The drawbacks are much more subtle, often insidious, and might take years to show up.  And they can be devastating.

Unions, before they decide to strike, often invoke “work to rule.”  Their members are all told to only do the absolute minimum expected of them.  What’s wrong with “working to the rule” is this:   when people are motivated, and trusted, and engaged, they tend to do more than the minimum.  Trust people to their integrity and they take three weeks vacation.  Set a rule – which by its definition is an act of distrust – and they take four.

Am I saying rules are always bad?  Of course not.  But they ought to be a last resort.  Every time you create a rule, beware its subtle unintended consequences.

YOUR PATH FORWARD: Whenever you’re tempted to create a workplace policy or rule:

  1. Determine how important it is to erode the trust that lives where people are relied upon to do the right thing on their own
  2. Reflect on other ways to curb abuses – ways that don’t send the message that no one here can be trusted.  For example, try conversations with the abusers.
  3. Get feedback from those whom the rule will impact.
  4. Brainstorm — imagine — all potential consequences of the rule’s implementation, not just the obvious compliance.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

One thought on "Rules & the Power of Trust"

  1. Ginny says:

    Well Steve, this was marvelous–a great analogy of the consequences of mistrust. I can feel it myself–how I’d feel after the policy of trust had been changed. You think and write
    brilliantly! Ginny

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