Rules, rules and more rules. How too many unnecessary rules kills engagement


Have you got a job that has you so committed you jump out of bed faster than a runaway train for the daily commute to the office?

Not likely, according to a recent Gallup Poll that disturbingly revealed only 14 per cent of Australians are truly engaged in their work. A staggering 71 per cent said they were not engaged and a further 15 per cent admitted to being actively disengaged – with our detached ways estimated to cost Australian business in excess of $50 billion each year.

Ask the experts to account for such troublingly low levels of engagement and they will point to a silent but deadly productivity killer: the blemished belief among beleaguered bosses that workers are machines who can be engineered and controlled by a raft of rules.  

Some workplace rules are ‘must haves’ – that’s not in question. Others are frustrating but perhaps worth having. And then there are rules that simply should not exist – and there’s no shortage of fabulously farcical examples.

Take, for example, the barbaric bathroom breaks rule, which caps the number and duration of visits allowed each shift (it is hard to understand why would you stop someone going to the bathroom); the strict dress code that forbids beards in the workplace (even though everyone knows that nothing helps worker’s productivity than beard stroking); and the career-killing command requiring employees to serve a minimum of six months before promotion (you have to ask what is magical about six months).

And perhaps even more frustrating is the draconian dictate that prohibits employees from using frequent flyer points accrued through company travel, the callous command that restricts the number and size of personal items you have on your desk, the suffocating stipulation that disallows smoking immediately before entering the office and arguably the most oppressive of all – the silencing statute that requires personal mobile phones to be powered down during work times.  

And while those puerile and pedantic rules that govern the stationery cupboard portray workers as a collection of crooks, the killer of all moronic mandates in our workplace – the customer is always right – is just plain wrong. 

The bottom line is the practice of imposing nit-picking workplace rules that employees consider unnecessary or over the top that thwarts employee engagement and causes resentment.  

Such rules leave workers feeling their employer does not trust them to use best judgement and that their bosses have low expectations of them.

Rule-driven workplace cultures take away people’s freedom to choose, which not only impacts their motivation but reduces their sense of responsibility.

More often than not the most distasteful decrees are put in place to respond to the behaviour of a single employee who has crossed the line – and that is where the bosses blow it.   

Adding insult to injury is the fact many bosses put in place needless rules and regulations and then fail to abide by their own directives.

Engagement is neither about employee happiness nor satisfaction. It is about whether employees are tuned in to work to the point they will push themselves to give their very best, even when not supervised.

So here is a rule for making the right rules. The key for bosses is to strike a delicate balance between having enough rules to ensure a well-run workplace but not too many for employees to get their backs up.  

At the end of the day, an over-regulated work environment will always crush creativity, minimise motivation and end engagement – as opposed to having the right rules that people believe in and which impact positively on the quality of workplace life.

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