Consistency versus flexibility in rule enforcement

By Marc Resnick

Kristen Laurin from the University of Waterloo has just published some research findings that I think have some important implications for IEs, especially in shop floor management (any behavior related to safety, productivity, quality etc.).  Even though her work was actually focused on emigration, it is amazing how it relates to our work.  Hey, no thanks necessary.  Linking disparate areas of research is what I am here for.

What she found is that when rules are absolute (no chance for either changing them or getting away with violating them) we tend to accept them as reality.  And then our subconscious, to maintain our feelings of internal consistency, rationalize some justifications for why we wanted to comply anyway.  We don’t like to feel 100% forced into things, so our subconscious plans tricks on us.  It tells us that it must be a good rule.  That the leaders must be smarter than we thought.

On the other hand, when there is leeway, our brain is always looking for loopholes.  Can we get away with violating the rule?  Will there eventually be new leaders who change the rule?  Can we convince the leaders that we deserve an exception to the rule.  If we think there is a chance, then our brain keeps working on solutions.  And because of that, the rationalization never happens.

Dr. Laurin’s research focuses on emigration policies.  She found that if you have no chance of leaving a country because of a dictator, then people’s subconscious rationalizes that the dictatorship isn’t as bad as it seems.  We have stability don’t we?  Security?  This is kind of similar to the Stockholm syndrome experienced by kidnap victims.  But if there is some leeway.  A weak dictator, someone to bribe, etc.

So the general conclusion is that if you are going to implement unpopular rules, you need to make them absolute.  You will get that subconscious rationalization and buy-in.  But if there is any leeway, people will keep trying to find loopholes.  And no buy-in.

So why do I think that research on emigration in dictatorships is related to shop floor management?  Well, we always have some rules and policies that are unpopular.  Hopefully not many, but there are always a few.  The key to having them accepted is that they have to be absolute.  100% enforcement on 100% of the relevant employees.  No turning a blind eye when the rule would delay shipment to a good customer.  No exceptions for pet workers.  You might think that this is being the corporate asshole Robert Sutton writes about.  But if you are really 100%, then you get that subconscious rationalization effect.  Workers can’t help but think the rule must be better than they thought.  You must be smarter than they thought for having it.  But it only works if you enforce it 100%.

The results can bleed into the corporate culture.  We can enforce all of our rules and regs 100%.  If a rule needs exceptions, put them in writing and change the rule.  Then we get an entire culture of acceptance and compliance.  If all rules are 100%, you must really be smart and competent.  The rules must be really appropriate and in our best interest.  Consistency in rule enforcement creates this rationalization effect that pervades the entire culture and reinforces itself over time.

But having even just a few rules that are acceptable to violate reduces the compliance culture.  Maybe one or two rules are 100% compliance if they make sense (like wearing a respirator when coal mining).  But the rest . . . . would be hit or miss.

My recommendation – make up the best set of rules you can, write exceptions and exclusions into the official rule.  And then don’t make exceptions on the fly.  The one time that this might be an advantage is well compensated by the extra compliance and buy-in you get from consistency.

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