Company rules and policies don’t come cheap; they cost your organization money, in the form of disengagement and lack of innovation. The rules that are meant to increase performance end up stifling momentum.

How can you expect your team to give their best when their hands are tied? Most employee handbooks are full of useless rules. They were written to control people, not to encourage positive behavior.

This exercise will help you identify limiting rules and make sure they don’t get in the way of your team’s performance.

1. Start by identifying limiting rules

The best way to understand what’s hurting your team is to invite them to be part of the conversation.

Ask your team to identify all the rules and policies, both written and unwritten, that are getting in their way. Have people working on their own first, then collect everyone’s thoughts and encourage a positive discussion.

Encourage people to perform this analysis with a team vision in mind, not just their personal interests.

Provide common criteria for this analysis:

  • Rules that go against our team/company’s core values and purpose
  • Rules that focus on negative behavior (what not do) versus promoting positive ones
  • Rules that punish the majority of people instead of the few offenders
  • Rules that treat people as kids rather than as grownups
  • Rules that slow down decision-making or new initiatives

2. Rank the limiting rules

Ask people to vote and rank the limiting rules from most harmful to least harmful.

You can either assign one vote per person or three colored dots each (one for “a rule that’s easy to fix,” a second for “a rule that’s hurting us the most,” and a third one for “a rule that’s ridiculous or sends a double message”).

Choose the top three and move to the next step. Why only three? Because you can’t change them all at once. Also, because it will allow you and your team to experiment, testing what happens when you modify or eliminate specific rules before you tackle them all.

3. Strategize

There are three options you can follow with each selected rule:

  • Simplify it
  • Avoid punishing everyone
  • Eliminate it

Simplify limiting rules:

General Motors used to have a dress code manual that was 10-page long. Not only did it turn a simple affair into a complicated one, but it was also very controlling and restrictive.

When GM’s now-CEO, Mary Barra, was CHRO she realized that the company’s dress code was complex, copious, and lengthy. She didn’t just trim the manual but shrank it to two words:

“Dress appropriately.”

Simplifying company rules requires more than shortening their length; the idea is to provide criteria rather than tell people what to do.

Avoid punishing everyone

Most companies create rules to control a small number of offenders but end up punishing everyone. They’re managing for the 3% of offenders, rather for the 97% who play ball.

A client I worked with was in trouble after forbidding people from drinking beer at work. Initially, they started offering free beer during small celebrations or company casual Fridays.

However, employees got used to drinking beer at work and started bringing their own. Things quickly got out of hands, and the company banned drinking beer in the office.

Of course, this rule created a lot of pushback; the majority felt punished because of a small minority of offenders. Our suggestion was simple; instead of banning beer across the board, the rule should say that beer drinking is permitted only during company-sponsored events.

This new rule allowed the company to bring back beer to its gatherings while limiting other occasions in a positive way.

Get rid of limiting rules

Sometimes, the best solution is to eliminate the problem. Do limiting rules stand for something meaningful, or are they just an obstacle for people to do their work?

If something doesn’t make sense, get rid of it.

If a rule no longer is meaningful, eliminate it.

If the price you pay for a rule is higher than what the rule is supposed to prevent, ditch it.

Spotify encourages people to both respect and challenge company rules. Rules are a good start, but employees are invited to then break them, as I wrote here.

Spotify employees are offered two guiding principles to get rid of rules:

“If it works, keep it! Otherwise, dump it.”

“What works well in most places, may not work in your environment.”

Get started. Taking care of limiting rules can get your team’s productivity back on track.


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