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!

Dealing with the rigid rule enforcer: The case of the miniscule backpack

Last weekend, I showed up at a professional football game wearing a tiny hiking backpack—I mean, a pack small enough to scale Mt. Everest without breaking much of a sweat. But of course, the friendly gate agent informed me that this particular bag was “too big to go into the stadium.”

“Is there a locker where I can store it?” I asked. “It’s too big to go into the stadium,” she reiterated, incoherently. “Ok, I’m with you,” I said, “but is there a locker where I can store it, or do I have to throw it away?” (having taken a cab and not having many other options short of skipping the game or burying it in a bush). “You’ll have to remove the contents and put them into this plastic bag,” she said, still not answering the locker question but finally providing at least the specter of some useful information.

Now why would they care whether the contents remained in the bag or went into a clear plastic bag of almost exactly the same proportions, I thought? And why would she not process the locker question? Aha! I realized. They don’t really give a hoot about my bag or its size; they just want to monitor its contents. “Ok, I’ll do that,” I responded, “and can I fold up my backup and put it into my pocket?” “Go ahead,” she replied, finally mustering a direct reply to my consistently direct questions.

Now, I won’t claim that this represented an act of intellectual genius, as anyone could’ve surely come up with the same solution. Nor will I claim that it was an easy fold job, as the seams of my shorts expanded to epic proportions before the agent finally waved me by. Nor will I belittle the agent or her stubborn insistence on the rules, considering the omnipresent dangers of the present age.

Still, this experience reflects an annoyingly common opportunity to make life negotiable: our many interactions with the many organizational actors whose job is to merely and mindlessly enforce the rules—budget cops, scheduling cops, office supply cops. Few of us enjoy conversing with such people. Most of us resent their rigidity and stubborn refusal to peek even an eyeball outside the box. Yet, making life negotiable involves setting aside our resentment and separating the rule enforcer from the rule.

Stubborn and incoherent as the rule enforcer may seem, their intransigence often reflects someone else’s insistence that they enforce the rule, mixed with defensiveness borne of countless interactions with people who consider the rule ridiculous. Indeed, even if stubbornness and incoherence represent core tenets of their personality, nobody’s going to get very far by fixating on the enforcer’s idiocy. Rather, I’d advise you and anyone else who encounters a rule enforcer to focus on the rule—specifically, to try and ascertain what real concern lurks behind it. In the case of the miniscule backpack, for example, the rule emphasized pack size but the rule arose from an underlying concern with the many nefarious things that nefarious people might put into large bags. Having implicitly understood that, I was able to uncover a creative a solution that satisfied the concern and thus the enforcer, if not the letter of the rule.

Now, I’m fully aware that this approach will not always work. I’ve dealt with a fair number of enforcers myself, and I realize that some are so fixated on the rule that their ears spontaneously fill with wax the moment you dither at their directive. Still, I’ve found that a surprising number of rule enforcers, faced with someone curious about the concern rather than intent on cursing the ground they walk on, will at least open their ears to the possibility of a third way.

So here’s the real point: the world is full of rules and people who enforce them. Faced with an enforcer, you can either fixate on them or the rule they’re enforcing. I’d recommend fixating on the rule and trying to understand the underlying concern, thereby raising at least the specter of a creative solution.

How do you deal with the rule enforcers?