Company rules and employees who follow them are essential for the success of your business.  But antagonistic “rule-people” can reduce team effort and sabotage your operations. To read the rest of this article from the Denver Business Journal, see: How to deal with antagonistic ‘rule people’ in the workplace

Rule people aren’t necessarily malicious.  But their rigid inflexibility can cause as many problems as any troublemaker.  Rule-people:

  1. See everything in black and white, need all procedures and boundaries clearly defined and labeled, with rewards and consequences spelled out exactly – no gray areas and no choices.  They need uniformity and repeatability, can’t handle ambiguity, uncertainty and what they perceive as mixed messages.
  2. Insist on clear titles and privileges.  They want to know everyone’s exact job description, authority, responsibility and accountability.  They can’t handle matrix management – multiple reporting and task relationships.
  3. Use authority and experts to back up their opinions.
  4. Don’t like change unless they can see immediate and obvious advantages.
  5. Need closure, want decisions made and set in stone, even if nothing has to be begun for years.
  6. Compare themselves with everybody on every criterion.
  7. Relate only through power dynamics – command, control and obeying orders. They’re bullies.  They don’t get things done through relationships or by simply pitching in.  They need to know where everyone stands.  They’re more comfortable knowing they’re on the bottom, than wondering where they are.

We all follow the rules sometimes, but “Edna” is a good example of an antagonistic rule-person. She uses the rules to intimidate people and advance herself at the expense of your supervisory authority and departmental productivity.  For example:

Other typical examples of rule-people in crucial roles are human resource and financial managers, and administrative assistants.

To work with an antagonistic, rule-person, you’ll have to:

  • Be exacting and clear about rules, and demand what you need specifically in writing.
  • Be prepared to be challenged if you treat the rule-person differently from anyone else.
  • Include “professional, team behavior” rules – specific, detailed behaviors, not abstractions or attitudes – as important components in performance evaluations.
  • Clearly label your actions; indirect cues, kindly suggestions, informal messages or casual conversations will not be counted as important.  You must say, “This is a verbal warning” or “This is a disciplinary action.”  Antagonistic, rule-people take any softening to mean that your feedback doesn’t have to be acted on.
  • When they excuse their bad behavior with innocuous labels like, “It was a misunderstanding,” or “I’m just an honest person,” you must re-label it clearly as unprofessional.  For example: “Yelling or name calling is not a misunderstanding or honesty.  Neither is acceptable behavior at this organization, no matter how you feel.”
  • Document everything.

Overly rigid rule-people who use the rules to serve their own selfish interests are problem employees.  They need to be dealt with promptly and decisively – or they will create big problems for you and your organization.

Generally, rule-people who want to help can become good managers and administrators, but they won’t be outstanding leaders.  They can oversee repeatable operations, but they won’t be able to act creatively and appropriately in the face of uncertainty, novel problems and risk.