Jimmy Lindsey Discusses Rules Versus Standards in the Workplace

Jimmy Lindsey

Monday, May 19th, 2014

An interesting and challenging idea is presented by Coach Mike Kryzyzewskie in his book, The Gold Standard.  There are many noteworthy ideas throughout the book, but one statement that was particularly bold and that really got my attention was his declaration that “in developing teams, I don’t believe in rules.  I believe in standards.  Rules don’t promote teamwork, standards do. ” At the very least, his comments stimulate an interesting philosophical discussion:  what, if anything, is the difference between rules and standards?    

Coach K goes on to do a good job of highlighting some of the differences between rules and standards. In the case of rules, their purpose is to clarify behaviors, while standards involve internalizing ideals. By their design, rules require compliance.  Standards, on the other hand, are things to which we aspire. People live by standards; they adhere to rules. Inside of a business, standards go beyond behaviors, they involve shared aspirations. If rules set the bar, standards serve to raise that bar.

A vision statement and mission statement often form the foundation for a company’s unique set of ideals – its standards.  Because vision and mission so often address the topics of what is our business and what do we want to become, they provide guidance and direction beyond what appears in a policy manual. The seeds of corporate culture are sown in its mission and vision.

Certainly businesses cannot exist without rules.  Without them chaos reigns. But in order for a business to flourish, it takes both rulesandstandards. Trying to find the balance between the two is more of an art than a science. The interplay between rules and standards will vary depending on numerous variables, including the size and nature of the business as well as the personalities and temperament of management.

How does one manage the interplay between rules and standards in a complex world that places numerous, often conflicting demands on a business and its employees? It certainly can be tricky, which is why an organization should consciously make the effort to identify its standards, communicate those standards and establish employee behavioral expectations.  It is about ‘painting a picture’ of what performance excellence would look like! Company standards are a good indicator of how employees are going to behave.

How does an organization impart team standards across its entire workforce? Each team is different and therefore each team could have a different set of standards.  What would your organization’s standards look like? Is your organization rules-driven or standards-driven? Can you be both?  

In the end, standards are what direct our actions in how we work – how we interact with each other and how we interact with our customers.  Whether we like it or not, standards are a part of corporate ‘DNA’ – the genetic instructions for how our businesses develop! 

As each business and each employee juggles the challenges of the job, they are very often required to look at things from multiple perspectives. There is of course, the business perspective, there is the legal perspective and there is the ethical perspective . . . and it is this ethical perspective that has its roots in your organizational standards, not necessarily in your policy manual. Are those within your organization tuned into your organizational standards?