Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 9;   February 27, 2002:

Heavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

As a leader you carry a heavy burden. You're accountable for everything from employee development to meeting organizational objectives, and many of these responsibilities conflict. Life is tough enough, but most of us pile on a load of over-generalized rules of work life — a load too heavy for anyone to bear.

We all carry around a heavy burden of over-generalized rules: I must always do this, I must never do that. I first learned of these rules from the work of Virginia Satir, who called them "survival rules." Rules usually have relevance and value, but in their over-generalized forms, they limit our choices and lead us into trouble.

An overloaded transport busAn example: "An effective leader must always communicate and provide leadership and motivation." While a laudable goal, it isn't always possible. For instance, you might be directed to withhold certain information, or you might have an employee or two who are so distracted by problems at home that they cannot be motivated — by anyone.

Anyone who believes that an effective leader must always communicate, lead, and motivate, risks feeling bad most of the time, because the standard is so often unachievable.

Our example has the form "I must always X," but rules can take other forms: "I must never X," "I should X," "I should always X," and so on. Their unforgiving language leads to trouble: if you violate X, you're not an effective leader. Life is not like that — there are always circumstances. Sometimes those circumstances provide good reason for not "meeting the standard," but the rules make no allowances for Life.

We all carry around
rules that limit our choices
and lead us into trouble
To see the impossibility of adhering to these rules, apply a simple test. Certainly if you must do something, you can do it, so if you change must to can, the statement should be true. If it isn't, you have an impossible rule. Our example becomes "An effective leader can always communicate and provide leadership and motivation." Laughably impossible.

Because of our rules, we can feel guilty when we're innocent. And because of our rules, we have "buttons" that other people can push. Fortunately, Virginia Satir has given us a way to shed the burden that rules impose. She called it Rule Transformation.

Rule transformations have two steps. You first change the rule to a guideline, and then you add conditions for its application. In our example, we change "must always" to "can sometimes" to make it a guideline, and then we add some conditions:

An effective leader can sometimes communicate and provide leadership and motivation, when communication is appropriate, when people are able to accept leadership, and when they can be motivated.

This form removes much of the unbearable burden from the leader, and acknowledges that other people have roles to play, too.

What are your rules? To find some examples, saddle up your favorite search engine and search for "an effective leader should," "an effective leader must," "leaders must never," "the best leaders always," and so on.

See how many of the rules you find are rules you carry around with you every day. When you find one, transform it. You will have set down a heavy burden. Go to top Top  Next issue: Mastering Meeting Madness  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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