Does Having Fewer Rules Inspire Hard Work?

I was recently talking to a client about the lack of guidelines for acceptable personal use of office resources in his company. He rejected the suggestion that he provide any real rules or guidelines (apart from some old rules that most employees were not aware of and of which there was no procedure to remind them to periodically read). He said that he only wanted to hire motivated people who wanted to work, and that people who need rules should work elsewhere.

The results of his approach seem reasonable, everyone who works for him works really hard. In return his attitudes towards employees are more relaxed than most employers, among other things he is very supportive of employees who desire career opportunities greater than his company can offer.

I have been wondering whether rules alone can make people lose interest in working, or whether it’s the type of person who doesn’t want to impose rules that inspires hard work.

My experience is that when working for people who have a rule-free environment I tend tend to work really hard, and that when working for companies that have lots of rules I find it difficult enough to get out of bed in the morning – let alone become motivated to do any work.

I am interested to see comments from other people, both workers and managers. Is my experience common in this regard?

14 comments to Does Having Fewer Rules Inspire Hard Work?

  • Richard

    I do not think that the attitude of rules or no rules is what makes the differance. It is the attitude that the employer respects and trusts his/her employees. I would not doubt that the employer carefully screens the potential employees, either formally or has a good feel for people and goes with instincts, and that any employee that does not conform is thee very long. But when the employer cares about the employees there is a much greater likelyhood that those employees will work harder and be better employees. Rules are sometimes a sign that there is not the trust by the employer towards the employees and the work environment is not as supportive and conductive to good employees. There are always going to be some rules, even if they are obvious like not stealing from the employer, but then the employees do not mind working a little longer or going out of their way for the employer.

  • rob

    We have no set rules where I work outside of a basic AUP for the network, and we have a mass of highly motivated and highly skilled staff. Its a wonderful place to work.

    I think its a matter of trust. We are expected to do our work and meet our deadlines, but given the freedom within that to determine how we are going to meet that. Being given that responsibility and trust is motivating. I can understand how it would be difficult to work an environment we’re I wasn’t trusted. I’d find it very difficult to be motivated to do more than the bare minimum.

  • I work in a computer repair shop where there aren’t really any rules or guidelines outside of the more common-interest things (customer care, etc…). I eat when I want, take a break or two when I want, and can take a short walk outside as long as my work isn’t affected and I love my job. Also, like you said, my boss is very supportive of me getting out there and aspiring to things higher than the computer repair shop. It is a very laid-back working environment, he only asks us to wear a company shirt (doesn’t even have to be tucked in). Over all, I couldn’t dream of a better job for a kid my age.

  • martin langhoff

    The Peopleware books — and more recently Joel Spolsky — explore the problem space of rules vs motivating programmers. Where the think rulebook rules, the hidden message is “don’t think”. And we all love places where the only rule that matters is “work together to get it done”.

    I’m right now at one of those places – and wouldn’t give it up. It’s attracted an incredibly talented pool of people that enjoy working on the stuff they are passionate about with no barriers. Addictive.

  • Arno

    Suggested reading: Peter F. Drucker: Management (ISBN-10: 0750643897, ISBN-13: 978-0750643894)

    You have to set rules, otherwise the output might be more random than you want it to be. There are a lot of situations where your best man can get unproductive and even harm the company. The main difference is how you behave as manager and how rules comply with the mission of the company. KISS – however – should be mandated.

  • In my country, there apearing a problem of working poor.
    I wonder why there are a lot of youngsters who are not employed permanently and try to get job periodically.
    Japanese companies had been offering life-long job for employees for more than 50 years and everybody seemed ok as long as they are hired by company.
    But times changed and there are a few talented people ( IT industry employee is one) who work for their own will, but there are many people who want to be ordered what to do.
    They want routine work and not inventing something.
    I know one guy who is not willing to do anything but watching alert and if alert pops up, just call companies to solve.
    I tried to teach him programming,but couldn’t make it.
    Highly motivated people should contrive what others can easily follow and in inventing those contrivance, there should be almost no regulations but when it comes to other ordinary people follow, you should need a lot of regulations and let them obey and of course in case they should not obey ,penal relulations are needed.

  • etbe

    Shintaro: In regard to the working poor, that’s a separate issue that I have touched on in some other posts and will write more posts about in future.

    The people you refer to who want to be ordered to do, how old are they? Do you think that they may have developed those tendencies as a result of excessive rules? Do you think that Learned Helplessness (see above URL) might apply to some work conditions? If so do you think that the Japanese culture might have more tendencies towards this than other cultures?

  • brandon’s repair shop is great!
    I have just been to those shop (they also sell) in my home town.
    Everybody in the shop wear same T-shirt, but nobody looked laid-back.
    They work hard and I bought barebone machine, and I didn’t wait even 3 minutes to get out the shop.
    In my country everybody is busy and can’t wait even 5 minutes to buy something.
    If you go out or eat whenever you want who alternates your job and what happens so many customers coming at one time?
    Yes, in my country every generation just waits to be ordered and just complain what politicians do.
    They are so acustomed to old regime style which had been abondoned several centuries ago.
    My country is more socialistic than Western countries and now we are facing challenges to adjust to go-on-your-own style.
    Yes, I know we are very good about not inventing new style,but making regulations and work on that.
    It was so successful in some decades, but looking China,Korea,Taiwan thriving made us understood that those stiles are not good enough.
    Even TOYOTA had a trouble these days on KANBAN-style (not having extra parts so that saving money), because of the Earthquake hit their SITAUKE companies and could not get parts.
    So, I think one-line regulations is not good and as you said,Learned Helplessness might hit even those who are talented, so I myself try to be laid-back and believe in freedom.

  • I agree. I work harder for my current rule-light company than I did for previous rule-heavy businesses. In fact, one reason for the business type we chose (which maybe wasn’t the easiest to use and maybe isn’t the least taxed) is the simplicity of required rules – we set out how we make decisions, we consciously try to avoid deciding to make new rules and the rest follows from that. That’s part of why I think issuing decisions on single cases, rather than trying to set vast policies, is fine in free software projects. If we make a dumb single-case decision, we can do different next time. If we set a dumb vast policy, we have to decide to remove it and that can be too hard.

  • I still reckon I did my best work at Melbourne Uni, where there were virtually no rules at all and the pressures weren’t from ladder-climbing clueless managers trying to make themselves look good, but rather from people whose interests lay firmly in the work they were doing.

    It’s been mostly a downhill slide since then, although it certainly moved up once I got out of the hell that is working for a small-business. Never again. When it comes to overly strict companies, where you just cannot get away from the manager, small business absolutely takes the cake.

  • @Paul – do you mean a sole-tradership (one person owns it)? My rule-light company is a small business, so it ain’t necessarily hell.

    My most rule-infested employer was a college, so it’s nice to hear that Melbourne Uni is still a proper academy.

  • etbe

    Above is a response to my post in German. I would appreciate it if someone could translate it to English.

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