Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, shouting and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: "Peter," he says, "please remember Rule Number 6," whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes and withdraws.
The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted 20 minutes later by an overwrought woman gesticulating wildly. Again the intruder is met with the words: "Marie, please remember Rule Number 6." And again, complete calm descends and she too withdraws.
After this happens a third time, the visiting prime minister says: "My dear colleague, I've never seen anything as remarkable as this. What is the secret of Rule Number 6?"
"Very simple," replies the resident prime minister. "Rule Number 6 is: 'Don't take yourself so damn seriously.'"
"Ah," says his visitor, "that's a fine rule. And what, may I ask, are the other rules?"
"There aren't any."
Most of us think we don't like rules: they're boring and stifle our creativity. But what we actually don't like are stupid rules — rules that needlessly prevent freedom of choice or simply confound common sense, like the airline pilot whose nail clippers are confiscated by the TSA and, five minutes later, is sitting in a cockpit with a crash axe behind his seat; or the company with the strict "no jeans" policy, even on casual Fridays.
Creating the right set of rules — call them "rules of engagement" or a code of conduct — for you and your team can have a powerful effect on behavior. When rules are a conscious reflection of your values, they reduce the number of decisions you have to make, which means greater clarity, less redundant thinking and quicker resolutions (Remember Rule No 6!).
They also free up mental energy for innovation and raise the bar for greatness: Much of George Washington's skill as a leader can be attributed to his adopting the Jesuit-inspired list of 110 'Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation' as a schoolboy.
Here are four examples to get you started:
Cut out conversations about right or wrong. You'll know when you're having them because most of your sentences start with "no," "yes, but" or "however." Instead, keep the focus on what you ultimately want, a solution. In other words, do you want your colleague to admit they made a mistake on the spreadsheet or do you want to get reimbursed by the client?
Make conversations additive not argumentative. Think improv, where performers say "yes, and" to build on what the other has said and never reject each other's ideas onstage. "There's a lot of power around yes versus no," Chet Harding, co-founder of Boston's Improv Asylum comedy group told Slate. "If I say no, I might get a laugh at your expense. But it stops the idea. And it creates a bad culture, both onstage and in an office setting. Next time, you might wait for me to start so that you can rip the rug out from under me, as opposed to a relationship where we're trying to advance shared ideas and make each other look good."
Give people the benefit of the doubt. Whether it seems like it or not, people are doing their best. If you hold firm to a belief in their potential, they might just live up to it. And if you assume there's information they have that you don't — "Is there some reason you didn't [call when you said you would]?" — you avoid premature accusations and back-pedaling.
No man left behind. That's the unwritten code among Navy SEAL teams. It means: if any of their men fall — dead or alive — they waste no time in waffling or debate. They go back to get them. I experienced the sense of trust and camaraderie this rule creates when I was flying back from an out-of-town event with two new colleagues, just after joining a consulting firm. Held at security because my ID had expired, I assumed they wouldn't stick around for the newbie. Instead, "no man left behind," they told me, as they waited to make sure I got through.