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? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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.
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:
- Take Regular Temperature Readings
- Team interactions are unimaginably complex. To avoid misunderstandings, offenses, omissions, and mistaken
suppositions, teams need open communications. But no one has a full picture of everything that's happening.
The Temperature Reading is a tool for surfacing hidden and invisible information, puzzles, appreciations,
frustrations, and feelings.
- Should I Keep Bailing or Start Plugging the Leaks?
- When we're flooded with problems, and the rowboat is taking on water, we tend to bail with buckets,
rather than take time out to plug the leaks. Here are some tips for dealing with floods of problems.
- Decisions, Decisions: I
- Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but
it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions? How do we choose the right
process for the job?
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: II
- Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules.
And that's where the trouble begins. We remember them too easily and we apply them too liberally. Here's
Part II of a collection of often-misapplied words of wisdom.
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: IV
- Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although
these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
- 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.