Books Thoughts

Language of rules & policies vs. agreements

The book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey caught my interest recently. Chapter Six is about moving “From the Language of Rules and Policies to the Language of Public Agreement“. The table below outlines the differences between these languages and is a summary of page 118. There’s a fundamental difference between following rules and honoring agreements. The nuanced difference between rules and agreements sets them worlds apart for me. Rules are externally-focused. Agreements are internal because they are directly linked to will. Agreements become the glue that ties commitment to results. I think there’s a limit on how far you can go in trying to direct people’s behavior with rules. People withdraw their engagement when too many rules and regulations are used to keep them in check. I much prefer the language of agreements.

Language of Rules & Policies Language of Public Agreement
Intended to create order (from the top down, or the outside in) Intended to create organizational integrity (institutional fairness, attentiveness, and competence from within)
Institutionalized in written manuals or through implicit norms Shared understanding of their meaning and an experience of co-owning
Frequently discussed only after there is a violation Created before violation to establish a shared understanding and reference point
Violations are ignored or treated privately and as a matter of adjudication for problem elimination Violations are treatable publicly as a resource for personal and organizational learning
Multiple interpretations frequently exist Common understanding of the agreements themselves and their purpose
Creates a social vehicle for leaders or authorities to correct boundary transgressions Creates a social vehicle for peers to correct boundary transgressions
“Corrected” individuals experience the organization’s ability to control behavior “Corrected” individuals experience the organization’s integrity
Non-transformational; shapes behavior, not new meanings Transformational for both the individual and the organization

Related posts:
Self-organization is the real operating system
Emergence is simply what life does
Empowerment is a red herring
Pre-conditions for self-organization
What is a policy?
What if the organization is a living system?
Facilitating an Open Space
How to enable and sustain self-organization
TEDxTalk on Open Space Technology

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

3 replies on “Language of rules & policies vs. agreements”

Thanks for this interesting post. Would you say that this in its most fundamental core is why Holacracy won’t work in the long run (and indeed is not Teal), although very attempting at first?

I’ve been asked to clarify my answer above.

The reason that I answered “yes” is that I find the cognitive model of human beings as autonomous rule-following entities inadequate.

I also question whether Holacracy is Teal since
1) the power is in the process,
2) roles and accountabilities are explicitly defined, and
3) people have a basic responsibility to act as role fillers.
(See Brian Robertson, Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy (Penguin, 2015), pp. 21, 40–42, 92–94.)

Holacracy really doesn’t care how people feel as long as the process is honored.
(See Ibid., pp. 110–111).

All of the above are in fact Amber thinking, since Amber organizations have
1) rigorous processes,
2) highly formal roles, and
3) seek to create control through strictly defined roles.
(See Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations (Nelson Parker, 2014), pp. 20, 37.)

Hope this helps!

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