Rules and people

I’m feeling kind of braindead after dealing with logistics for two or three weeks straight, but I’ve got tonight off from socializing so let’s see if I can cobble together an actual post.

This is mostly built off of a conversation I had with a friend recently where we were discussing different management styles. I was telling him about a conversation I had with my former boss about a project I had helped manage. My former boss said that he thought it had gone well, but that I had not provided enough formal structure (No project meetings, no paper schedules, nothing), and that he had felt uncomfortable without it. It came off fine, because I had been checking in with folks individually on how things were going, and trusted them to let me know when they needed help. I hadn’t even thought about it until my boss brought it up, but then I realized that I was managing others the way I like to be managed, totally hands off, rather than giving people the management they needed/wanted.

That got us talking about different styles of management. Since he works for a large defense contractor, and I’ve worked mainly for small startups, you can imagine we had had slightly different management interactions. One of the things that we talked about was the problem with rules, a topic I’ve discussed before. The problem is that when rules are treated as rigid and absolute, they do not allow for any sort of adaptation to reality when they are not quite appropriate.

This idea that rigid rules and processes are hopelessly inadequate at capturing the full richness and diversity of experience necessary to operate in the real world is a major point of Seeing Like a State (which I’ll get around to reviewing one of these days). The author, James C. Scott, uses the example of European work-to-rule strikes as an illustration. To express their displeasure with new rules, union workers will sometimes go on “strike” by actually following all of the rules of a factory. They’re still at work, but by following the rules, and making sure that all of the safety precautions are met, they can reduce the factory’s productivity by an order of magnitude, thus illustrating the inadequacy of the rules at capturing what is actually going on in the factory.

Of course, the issue of absolute rules gets us into the issue that Beemer pointed out in the comments of that post that some people should not be trusted with deciding when the rules can be fudged. For those people, the rules _should_ be treated as rigid and absolute, because they might change them in the wrong way at the wrong time and create problems. However, the flip side of this is that when you have good people in your organization, they will see the inadequacy of the rules but get punished for breaking the rules to improve things, because the rules are absolute. Such an environment takes your good innovative people and turns them into the sullen, resentful zombies that need such rules to keep them in line, as I note here, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts (“Workers can’t be trusted, so we need strict rules.” “Look, they broke the rules, thus showing they’re untrustworthy”).

So how do we know when to trust people’s judgment? It’s tricky. It gets even more complicated because of the infamous study which demonstrated that incompetent people are not competent to judge their own incompetence, because the skills needed to judge competence are the same ones necessary to be competent. So we can’t ask people to rate themselves on whether their judgment is to be trusted – the ones most likely to answer yes are the ones for whom the answer should definitely be no. (shades of Douglas Adams here: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” (book 2, chapter 29 or so))

I kind of wonder if the resentful zombie phenomenon (by treating workers as drones, they start to act like drones) can be inverted – if we treat workers as if they are competent and responsible people who can make decisions on behalf of the company, will they grow into such a role? Anecdotal evidence suggests that is the case. Most of us try to rise to the occasion when we are given more responsibility. There’s admittedly some people who try to get promoted just for the ego boost, but I think most people are genuinely trying to do a good job. However, if we are given no autonomy and our ideas are ignored, it is all too easy to sink into becoming a Dilbert-quoting malcontent. Not that I have any personal experience with that, of course.

To handle the problem of the people who don’t even know they’re incompetent, it seems like the answer is mentorship. People learn from watching others. And a lot of things can be picked up unconsciously by working with somebody who’s really competent. Plus, there’s the competitive challenge of trying to keep up with them. And the mentor can sign off on when the person can be trusted to fly solo.

I guess I’m still a starry-eyed optimist. I’d like to believe that everybody can be trusted to do a good job. I’d like to believe that good people working together can jell as a team and become more than the sum of their parts. I’d like to believe that things like rules and processes should be seen for what they are – a recommendation of what worked for a certain group of people in a certain situation (e.g. the Leviticus diet strictures as a way of avoiding food poisoning). I’d like to believe that people will someday understand the contextual nature of, well, everything. But I’ll probably be disappointed for a good long while.

2 thoughts on “Rules and people

  1. Competent people when properly motivated should be managed in a way that allows them to exercise their competence. However, it is one of the biggest mistakes of freshly minted managers to assume that others are like them, or to attempt to resolve in managing others the years of accumulated trauma of being managed like a Dilbert.

    There are many management styles that are equally valid *depending* on circumstances and the team being managed. Claims (such as those made in “Peopleware” or other engineering management books) that there is only one right way to manage people miss the point.

    In short – you’re better than other people, which is both a blessing and an obligation.

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