Comments: About Rules: Between Don't Ask-Don't Tell and Zero Tolerance

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Jacques  Gauvreau, Ottawa   04/04/03
Right on.
Quite insightful and delightful to read.Making rules as we go speaks volumes about avoiding resolution by imposing another rule. Bravo Robert Benjamin for another masterful piece of writing.

Pam Hardy, Eugene OR   03/28/03
Rules and Working Above the Line
An excellent article! It clearly shows the practical consequences of our western love affair with rational certainty, and ways in which human nature does not seem to like to fit with our best laid plans. It strikes me that the key is often a culture of fairness, or justice. If people think that good work really does bring recognition, and that people who are always trying to get away with things at anothers expense are stopped they tend not to feel the need to invoke rules as often. Another key seems to be respect for people as self-directed decision makers. The existence of many small rules suggests that people aren't capable of, or trusted to, make their own good decisions. It suggests that the administration doesn't expect them to play fair from the beginning - the wrong tone to set. Further, no rule book, no matter how thick can ever cover all the potential contingencies. Reliance on rules rather than good judgment requires that those who always walk the edge be treated the same as those who are legitimately acting in good faith. But reliance on strict rules prevents a distinction from being made between the two, even though everyone knows it's there. Excess rules make people feel like a cog in a machine. Their particular contribution is not acknowledged, and they are not trusted to do anything but what is laid out for them like a computer program. I once worked somewhere that we were told that if it was "the right thing to do" we were expected to break the rules. Surprisingly (or not) it worked - people felt respected and made good decisions. A useful perspective on this that I first developed as a leader of teenagers on month long wilderness trips (and have since brought to the mediation room) is the concept of above the line and below the line behavior. When people behave above the line they are legitimately trying to work together. Below the line they are trying to get away with something. Rules are often invoked when people feel that an injustice is being done - someone is trying to get away with something. I often try to head off some of the pettyness by recommending that not all rules will be stateable, but 'good judgment' will be observed. People who consistently work above the line and act in small ways with good judgment will find more leniency when they ask for big favors. Similarly those who consistently live on the edge of the rules will be granted little tolerance when asking the same favors. With teenagers one might think this would generate complaints of unfairness, but my exprience has been that most find it to be a relief - they are pleased to be in an environment where the people who are always trying to get away with something don't, and the people who ought to be able to get away with things do. Other than this I make few rules. Most teenagers, and most disputants (eventually) rise to the occasion.