Rules versus negotiations

We all know that “rules are meant to be broken.” But what does that mean? And is it more than a meaningless cliché? By considering the meaning of the phrase, I think you’ll see that it can actually make life more negotiable.

To start, consider what rules actually do: Fundamentally, they regulate everyone’s behavior. Consider some common rules:

  • “All sales final.”
  • “11 am checkout time.”
  • “Wire transfers incur a $15 fee.”

Rules like these keep our behavior in line, preventing gratuitous returns, over-extended stays and, frivolous wire transfers. And they do so remarkably well, sending crystal-clear signals about what we can do and not do, seemingly applying the same fair standard to everyone, and coordinating our actions efficiently, without a lot of wasted time discussing. To see for yourself, just imagine the chaos if everyone could request their own checkout time. The clarity, fairness, and efficiency of rules mean they often redound to the benefit of society.

But that doesn’t mean they redound to benefit of ourselves. On the contrary, I’d imagine you’ve at least occasionally found rules like the above inflexible, if not downright arbitrary and silly. Right? I mean, does an 11:10 departure really put hotel operations into crisis mode?

Put differently, society may benefit from a proliferation of rules, but we could often benefit ourselves by breaking them—i.e., by adopting an alternative and more flexible mode of behavioral regulation: negotiations. A quick story to illustrate:

My older daughter recently had a swim lesson at 9 am, and my younger daughter and I were hoping to do some family swim in the same pool at the same time. Unfortunately, the “ZMCA” informed us of a rule: the non-lesson lanes were reserved for lap-swimming until 10 (at which point the older daughter’s lesson would be over). “If no one is using the lap lanes,” I asked the lifeguard politely, “is there any chance my (cute little, swimsuit-clad 3-year-old) daughter and I might use them to splash around?” “No problem,” she said, much to her credit.

Now the rules were the rules: No family swim till 10. But that was an inflexible, arbitrary, and silly rule in light of the complete absence of lap swimmers. In contrast, negotiating allowed the lifeguard and me to collectively and flexibly adjust to the situation in a well-reasoned and reasonable way. I would argue that many of us, in many such situations, would be happier by becoming less beholden to the rules and more beholden to negotiations.

Of course, in the interest of fairness and balance, a society full of rule-breakers would be nothing short of unbearable. Nothing would ever get done and no one would ever know what was happening, as everyone would constantly try to get everything done their way. And inevitably, the savvy negotiators would benefit at the expense of less-savvy and more obedient. That would not be socially desirable at all.

So I’m certainly not saying we should do away with the rules. That too would be silly. I’m simply saying that most of us, faced with a stunning disappointment like the sudden inability to swim, could afford to take one step away from the rules and one step in the direction of negotiation. Give it a try, and I’ll bet your life becomes more negotiable!

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