The distinction between rules and principles is illustrated by the following example:
- The rule: "In the team meeting, everyone must have their say and make a contribution."
- The principle: "Everyone has the right to be heard".
Rules specify what is to be done or not done. They are a clear indicator of whether something is right or wrong and they describe a clear causal chain - an if-then relationship: "When we have a team meeting, everyone has to say something." For complicated, calculable tasks, and environments where safety or human life is paramount, rules are effective and useful.
But how effective are rules when we can no longer say exactly what will happen tomorrow?
Or, when ideas are at stake and predefined paths would limit the free play of creativity in the team? When it becomes important for a team to work independently and not wait for instructions from the board? We live in a complex, fast-moving world where many things are no longer predictable. This applies not only to the environment of an organization, but also to the organization itself and teams in which collaboration takes place. In such complex networks, people with individual personalities, experiences and values work together. We know from constructivism that people always create their own reality. Thus, in many cases, rules fall short and do not support leaders in providing a creatively valuable environment. Rather, it is attitudes and principles that can influence people in their behaviour and enable us to set a common direction.
If challenges are interpreted differently from one individual to another, there is not just "one right solution".
Principles allow facts and the context to be interpreted and a variety of solutions to be found. The above example shows that the principle of "everyone has the right to be heard" permits leeway and thus supports - if not implicitly demands - self-responsible action.This is even more valuable in complex environments. Because in an environment where leaders create a clear framework for action with their team through common principles that is comprehensible to all participants, it is possible to activate so-called multi-brain thinking. In this way, agile and flexible decision-making and action in changing circumstances becomes feasible. This is not something that happens automatically, but principles encourage a constant exchange about what is seen as the common sensible action in the respective situation.
How does my #favouritemodel help you?
- Do you have the impression that the attitude "We have to do it this way" in your team is blocking new solutions? Then take the time to discuss your common understanding of rules and principles.
- In this context you will also discover which principles and rules apply to your team today.
- As a leader, you should ask yourself whether and which of the existing rules you would like to replace with principles together with your team. Establishing principles together with the team in a trusting atmosphere supports commitment and (self-) responsibility within the whole team. While rules describe a clear if-then relationship, principles focus on the aspects that are important to you as a team and which should be considered in all situations.