For under arm use only.Crazy.

Some of the rules, regulations, laws and policies of this world are simply crazy. In our schools, businesses, and our nation’s capital many of the things we actually write down as ‘the law of the land’ are just a bit bonkers.

For me, this realization started in grade school. There are I sat minding my own business chewing my gum when the teacher stopped in front of my desk, stuck out her kleenex covered hand and said, “Out with it,” in her best ‘you’re in trouble now, mister’ school teacher voice. “Out with what?” I said. “The gum. No one is allowed to chew gum in this class. It’s a rule. You’ll end up dropping it on the floor, sticking it under a desk or putting it in someone’s hair. It will make a mess and someone else will have to clean it up!”

Wow. Okay. I thought when I was finished gum went in the trash. It never crossed my mind to stick it in someone’s hair. Interesting idea. Why would I do that? So, I gave it up. There I sat, gum-less, just like all the other students in class, corrected for a crime I had yet to commit.

We had other crazy rules. No black-soled tennis shoes. They can mark the floor. For teachers, no talk of the 10 Commandments. Someone might hear and be tempted not to steal something.

School isn’t the only place this happens. The state of Alabama is rumored to have a law that says it’s illegal to chain your alligator to a fire hydrant. In Belvedere City, California, a city ordinance allegedly reads, “No dog shall be in a public place without its master on a leash.”

Businesses are just as guilty. Have you read the warning label on a stick of deodorant? “For under arm use only.” Does that mean there’s someone out there confusing deodorant with lip balm? Or worse, are they trying to eat it like an ice cream push pop!?

It’s easy to prove. With rules, regulations, policies and laws we often go round the bend.

And there’s a reason for it. We try to control behavior with words on paper. I have yet to meet a manager who says, “Thanks for acting so responsibly. I trust you to make this decision on your own without any guidance. I’m writing that down. Responsibility is our new policy.” Instead, rules, regulations, policies and laws are written for the lowest common denominator. It’s why law can be maddening for the law abiding citizen and why your best employees get frustrated by your personnel policy. Instead of dealing directly with the bad behavior of the irresponsible too often we write blanket statements that take gum away from everyone.

In America we proudly describe ourselves as a nation of laws but maybe we’ve missed the mark. Law can be stabilizing. It can balance and define the playing field, but law, at it’s heart, is much more about limiting opportunity than empowering possibility. What if the people of our country took pride in being a nation of responsibility rather than a nation of laws? What if your employees did the same? How would your work place change if you managed more by responsible conversation and less by policy and procedure? Don’t get me wrong. We need our guidelines. Laws and policies matter. People will make mistakes and your organization will need a plan to handle it when they do. But responsible people led in a responsible way will always accomplish more than those who only live down to the letter of the law. And no matter how ugly or challenging the task, they’ll be happier doing it. It may be a Pollyanna thought, but what if we could write laws and policies based on believing the best about people rather than assuming the worst?

There are four (4) basic reasons we write rules, regulations, policies and laws.

  1. Protect the innocent – the naive, ignorant, & those unable to protect themselves
  2. Punish the guilty – those who hurt someone else or the organization
  3. Manage the irresponsible – those who make mistakes, the untrained or incompetent
  4. Promote a behavior – define a culture, a worldview, our virtues, beliefs and practices

In my next post we’ll talk about how to write policy that inspires, laws that empower, and how to responsibly manage responsible people. In the meantime help me answer these questions.

  1. What are some of your crazy experiences with laws or policies?
  2. How would your business be different if people took responsibility rather than living down to the limits of the law?
  3. Is it possible to teach an irresponsible person how to be responsible? If so, how do you do it?

I have to go for now. I’m chewing gum in a classroom and my alligator’s double-parked at a fire hydrant.

Chad Balthrop
Husband, father and Executive Pastor at Owasso’s First Baptist Church. As co-owner and director of Interactive Solutions he led the video production team for the largest student camp in the United States. He is the author of Everyday People: The Divine Story of God's Relentless Affection for You. Connect with Chad via his LeadChange Profile, or on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or his blog.
Chad Balthrop