We live by rules and principles daily. We modify our behaviour to work within (or outside of) them on a continual basis. On the surface, they both affect (or control) our actions. But there is a subtle and important difference between them.
Principles are: bought-into, believed-in, understood innately, interpreted individually (inclusive of individuality), lived, makes sense to the individual, congruent with individual and organisational goals.
Principles take effort and time to distil and uncover. Up-front effort is required from each individual understanding each principle and thus to buy-in or reject them. Buy-in means integrating a principle into the core of an individual’s being. It is about shared understanding, goals, and vision.
Principles lead to self-regulated, consistent and authentic behaviour. The individual is allowed to be truly themselves and to following in their own way the principles they have integrated; it is about “we are in this together working towards a shared ideal.” Principles are empowering and freeing.
Rules are: Enforced (by threats or rewards), imposed, centralised interpretation, followed/towed (mechanically), not necessarily understood (and if so, only cognitively), usually does not make sense to individuals (excludes any individuality), often has no obvious bearing on individual or organisational goals.
Rules require little effort to devise and put in place. It is in essence answering the questions: “What do we want them to do?” and ”How can we make them do it?” There is a clear “us” vs “them”, or “boss” vs “unworthy workers” mentality.
Rules require lots of top-down behavioural monitoring and enforced behavioural modification. It does not matter whether individuals get what the rules are for; as long as they get the consequences for breaking them.
Rules lead to policy-dictated, unthinking and fake clone behaviours. Rules are limiting and diminish our humanity.
Example of a principle:
Our organisation is about helping our clients succeed. Our people are selected for their ability to empathise with our clients, and to work genuinely towards their success. We trust our people to exercise the correct judgement in terms of their effort and resource use to look after our clients. Our clients’ success matters the most.
Example of a rule:
Our organisation is about helping our clients succeed. Although we select our people based on their ability to work genuinely towards our clients’ success; we still need to control and monitor what they do. We can’t have them spend more than the allocated time or resources with each client. They need to clock their time with us every day and justify every overspend. Following the rules matters the most.
Principles are about trust, respect, empowerment, and togetherness. Principles underlie the new world of authentic business and personal engagement with the world. An organisation held together by shared principles is free to focus on customers with integrity and generosity.
Rules are about fear- or ego-driven control, disempowerment, meanness, and distrust. They gum up an organisation with the molasses of internal bureaucracy and punitive actions. Rules are the business-as-usual way of limiting the ability of an organisation to fully engage with customers.
A principles-based contract is short and succinct, and opens the business relationship to all possible opportunities.
A rules-based contract is long and tedious, and steeps the business relationship in fear, distrust, and potential punitive actions.
Are you into principles or rules?