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 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 troubleTo 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.
The 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
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Healthy Practices
- Some organizational cultures are healthy; some aren't. How can you tell whether your organizational
culture is healthy? Here are some indicators.
- Office Automation
- Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our
lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
- Ego Depletion and Priority Setting
- Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy
for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.
- How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II
- We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem,
and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem
we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode.
- The Self-Explanation Effect
- In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning.
Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't
structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
- You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
- I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
- A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
- …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.