One rule does not fit all!


imagesHow often do we run into obstacles, as clients, customers, employees, even employers, that are the result of rules that nobody can even remember the purpose of? We tend to associate government with bureaucracy, but really, we find it everywhere. How many times have you heard that something can’t be done, or should only be done in a certain way because

a) Our policy is that…

b) The employee handbook says…

c) We have always done it like this…

d) It has never been done like this…

e) All of the above?

Liz Ryan from The Human Workplace recently wrote this wonderful piece ‘How short a skirt is too short for the office’ in response to a letter she’d received. Although the matter at hand is dress code, it is so relevant to many aspects of life and business.

What I love about her response is that she does not advise the writer to hide behind policies and regulations, but to acknowledge that the matter is subjective, and to a certain extent, unique to the individual. In Liz’ words:

‘If we are honest, a waif in your office could come to work wearing a certain youthfully adorable outfit and look perfectly appropriate, whereas if middle-aged zaftig me showed up in the same ensemble with the same fabrics, cuts and colors, you and your co-workers would ask “What is wrong with that woman? Has she no sense of decorum?”’

As Ms Ryan points out, we often come up with these one-size-fits-all rules to avoid having difficult discussions, making judgement calls, making arbitrary decisions, and even having to think for ourselves! Why do we do this? Why are we so scared of making a decision, a judgement call, thinking? I suspect in a large part it is due to our need to be liked, to be popular.

But then Ms Ryan reminds us that we are grown up, and in positions that carry certain responsibilities, and that we need to act like adults, and take decisions, based on the intricacies and the variables in front of us. Which might well mean that we don’t always make the same judgement call, because context matters.

So, how does she suggest we solve problems like these, if we can’t throw a rule book at it? By having those difficult, or, as she calls them, sticky conversations. Do it as a human being, with feelings, emotions, and sympathy, and in a way that makes the other person feel like a human being too. Do it with empathy and kindness. Your objective is to solve the situation, not to make anybody feel bad about themselves.

So whether we deal with colleagues, clients, stakeholders, let’s get away from that eighties style cubicle mentality, and acknowledge that what is good for the goose, is not always good for the gander. People are unique, and deserve to be treated as such. Even when it requires a bit more effort and, yes, stickiness.


It will only hurt, well, a lot…


Some messages are easy to communicate. They offer something with immediate gains, for very little pain, or at least not immediate and clear pain. Others promise a long delayed payoff, and a noticeable immediate cost.

Lemonade or transit?

It is much easier to convince people to buy a lovely, sweet, refreshing drink on a hot summers day, than to get them to stop smoking, or to pay more taxes for the next 10 to 20 years so that we can build more effective mass transit networks. (And not only the people who have to pay more taxes, but also the politicians who have to face the voting public every few years.)

So how do we convince people to commit to things that offer no immediate gratification?

1. Paint the picture:

Show people what the end goal will look like. Tell them how it will benefit, if not themselves, then their children (or grandchildren), their communities, their country, society at large. Make them want to be part of the bigger picture, the solution.

2. Highlight the values:

Point out the ways in which it is the right thing to do, how it is consistent with people’s values and morals. Again, make them want to be part of the solution.

3. Case studies:

Show people comparisons, where has this been done, how was it done, and how did it turn out.

4. Third-party experts:

Find people who have no vested interest, but who have authority, respect and credibility in the community, to talk to the idea. Even if they differ on some points and issues, do not stifle their input, rather listen to them, and be seen to listen to them, and incorporate their ideas where it is possible.

5. Educate:

Make sure people know what you are doing, how you are doing it, and most importantly, why you are doing it. What is the background story, the history, the context?

6. Be transparent:

Be open and up-front with people, not just in the initial phases, but all the way through the project. Even, no, especially when things go wrong. Admit mistakes and failures. Do not justify them. Solicit input. Outline solutions. Move on.

7. It takes a village:

Include your audience/community at every level. Let them become part of the planning, the execution and the evaluation. Build relationships with your audience.

8. Be consistent:

Both in actions and communications, you need to stay on message. Don’t change the message halfway through. Don’t allow different and/or conflicting messages. One voice, one message, throughout.


So what do you think, can we still get people to commit to long-term projects?