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What Surgery Taught Me About Rule- Breaking - Chris Kolenda

What Surgery Taught Me About Rule-Breaking

How often does rule-breaking occur in your business? Probably more than you’d care to admit.

Americans are avid rule-breakers. I think it’s in our DNA or the water or both. Many people came to America because they didn’t like their home country’s rules. Americans defy scolding self-appointed elites. Don’t tread on me.

We brought the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence, and a revolution that stirred other rule-breakers into action. During the Cold War, Soviet military officers feared the American military’s unpredictability: “The American military is so hard to understand because they have a doctrine, but they don’t follow it.”

Skepticism about OPR—Other People’s Rules—is pervasive and probably happens more often than you’d like in your business.

I had surgery recently to repair several nose injuries I suffered in the Army that impeded my breathing. (Cue the wisecracks about the lack of oxygen in my brain, which explains a lot.) 

A nurse called before the surgery, giving me all sorts of dos and don’ts: no eating, drinking, or smoking cigars after 9 p.m. the evening before, take a shower, do not apply facial or hair products, etc.

Which of these rules are really necessary? The nurses tend not to explain why, which invites people to push the boundaries. What happens if I take the last cigar puff at 10:30 pm (which I did)? What’s the magic behind fasting for 12 hours before surgery? Why isn’t it six or twenty-four? No water, seriously? Won’t dehydration undermine recovery? What happens if I resort to rule-breaking?

I woke up at 6:30 am, drank the 4 ounces of water left in a bottle, showered (out of respect for the surgeons and nurses), and otherwise maintained my fast.

After slipping on my hospital gown, the anesthesiologist arrived to let me know how they would put me under. He asked when I last had something to eat or drink. I had finished dinner at 7 pm yesterday and drank 4 ounces of water at 0630. 

The time was 8:30, and the doctor said, “Water takes about two hours to run through your system, so we are ok. Some people experience nausea under anesthesia, so we want to make sure your stomach is empty because you can die of suffocation if you vomit.” 

Now I get it. The doctor gave me vivid details on why patients should fast and for how long. If I ever have another surgery, I’ll be sure to stop eating 12 hours beforehand and not drink water two hours beforehand. 

I could deduce the logic behind most rules, but not all of them. People are more likely to skirt the rules when they don’t get the logic. Respect for the rules signals a healthy business, so you want people to follow your standards voluntarily. Buy–in makes accountability much more manageable.

Here’s how you can improve voluntary compliance with your standards:

  • Use the “X so that Y” formula to describe your standards. “Don’t drink water for two hours before your surgery so that you don’t choke on your own vomit from the anesthesia,” for example.
  • If you cannot describe a compelling Y for a given rule, you have good reason to discard or modify it. There’s no reason I couldn’t drink some water early that morning, even though the nurse said nothing after 9 pm. The rule seemed ludicrous, and it was. Resist the urge to add excessive safety buffers, or people will stop taking your rules seriously.
  • When it comes to adding or modifying standards, enlist the people most affected by them in co-creation. People tend not to design self-defeating rules, so that you will have automatic buy-in for co-created ones.
  • Encourage your employees to ask “why” about your standards, which is a good forcing function for you to ensure the Y part of “X so that Y” is compelling. 

When I started asking doctors and nurses the why behind their do’s and don’ts, I got better and more customized responses. 

The best leaders are humble about their rules. Just because you say a given rule is important does not mean people believe you, especially if you don’t obey the rule yourself. 

Make your rules explicit, make them count, and eliminate the ones that have outlived their usefulness.

If you are ready to take your culture to the next level, I have some excellent options. 

First, you can join my Building an Inspiring Culture® program in the self-directed or live-led versions. You’ll receive short, crisp videos, clear step-by-step processes, and implementation assignments to apply the lessons at work.

A workshop is a second option. In it, I will walk you through the tools that build an inspiring culture and help you apply them in ways that work for you and your business.

Finally, an off-site retreat can be a powerful experience for you and your team to strengthen trust, streamline communication, and create shared understanding. My clients love doing them outside at battlefields or national parks.

Chris Kolenda: Catch people doing something right.

Catch people doing something right.

Do you want to know the #1 secret to improve performance? Catch people doing something right.

I’ve led, been led, and helped leaders for over 35 years, and how to improve performance always leads to lively discussion. I began on the wrong side of it.

I used to think constructive criticism was a leader’s most crucial role. When you root out problems, you can solve them. Problems fester when you ignore them, and your organization will rot from within. Besides, why praise someone for doing their job and meeting standards when that’s what they get paid to do?

I focused my attention on identifying problems and providing corrective action. I started to notice fewer problems but more resentment. C’mon – you’re grown people. No one’s perfect. You should be able to take some criticism and drive on.

Then I met Sergent Cline. He was Europe’s heavyweight champion powerlifter and the gunner on one of our platoon’s tanks. We called him Tiny.

Tiny, did you check the engine and transmission fluids? I asked during an inspection.

Yes, sir!

Ok, let’s take a look. 

I jumped up on the tank’s back deck, pulled the plates, and checked the fluids. Good-to-go. No problems here. I was ready to move to the next item I wanted to inspect.

Sir, that’s pretty messed up. Tiny said.

What do you mean?

You asked me if I checked the fluids. I told you I did, and you then checked behind me. Either you think I’m lying to you or that I’m incompetent. 

I’m just doing my job inspecting the tank.

It’s not about the inspecting. We want you to do that. We love showing off how good we are. When you want to check something, just do it. Don’t ask me first if I checked it. 

I was inadvertently trying to catch somebody doing something wrong. It built resentment and undermined my relationships. That discussion happened in 1988, and I’ve never forgotten the lesson. 

Searching for problems is lazy accountability. We’re hard-wired as humans to detect aberrations. It’s part of our amygdala’s fight-or-flight instinct. Problems stand out to us. 

Of course, you want to nip problems in the bud, like Sergent Cline did with me, or they become habits and much more challenging to correct. 

Avoid treating the problems you find as buried treasure. Simply ask, “How will you do it better next time?” Get the people responsible for correcting the problem involved in seeing it and developing ways to fix it. 

It’s also easy to acknowledge someone doing something extraordinary and essential to appreciate it. The challenge with only praising extraordinary performance is that most people won’t face the same circumstances or have the same capacity. As much as they’d like to repeat the behavior, they probably won’t be able to.

Acknowledging and appreciating to-standard performance is the most mentally challenging because we are hard-wired to gloss over it. You have to seek out good performance intentionally and admire it. 

One way to do this is to highlight a particular value or expectation and seek evidence for it. Note when someone’s actions exemplify your standards. “Way to go, Joe. You treated that customer’s complaint exactly right. You gave your full attention so she felt heard and used your judgment to fix the problem.”  

Catching people doing something right is your most potent behavior-shaping tool. When you acknowledge and appreciate someone’s behavior, they will repeat it and so will everyone else. 

How well is this process working for you? Email me to let me know. I love cheering your success and helping you get over obstacles.

Did you know people read my newsletter over 50% of the time? I’m thrilled that you get so much value out of it. 

You can increase your value to others by sharing what helps you grow. Whether it’s this blog or another, share it and encourage your colleagues to experience what’s valuable to you. Sharing wisdom is like a rising tide lifting all boats. 


Leadership: What Britney Griner’s Prisoner Exchange shows

Leadership: Leaders play favorites, and for many good reasons.

You bring people into your circle that you trust and who provide unique value and exclude others who lack those qualities. Any sensible leader follows this practice.

There’s a difference between this approach and one that only allows people into your inner circle because they look, think, or act as you do. You might enjoy having those people around you because they make you feel good, but tribalism creates blindspots that will damage your organization.

Playing favorites based on bias convinces people that no matter how well they perform, they won’t be recognized and appreciated. That’s why talented people vote with their feet for other companies.

Great leaders consciously include those who look, think, and have significantly different experiences. These leaders help inner circle members find their voice, make sure they are heard, and take action on their input. Gaining diverse perspectives improves decision-making and helps leaders avoid getting high from their own gas. The fabled emperor with no clothes is as much a tale about sycophantic advisors as it is about self-deception.

The best leaders rotate who’s in the inner circle based on their value to the leader and organization.

People who believe they’ll always be favored get lazy and protective of their turf. The result is you get worse advice and higher tension. You’ll find yourself refereeing more disputes and missing invaluable perspectives. You have to bring in the fresh air.

It’s too bad the Biden administration could not secure the release of both Americans in Russian captivity. Leaders make decisions among difficult choices. Griner is pledging her support for Whelan’s release.

Who’s in your inner circle, and what value are they providing?

Feedback is one of the best ways to understand what’s going right and wrong and make accurate adjustments that respond to vital needs. Most leaders and organizations manage feedback poorly, and 360s tend to be poorly designed and worthless.

Respond well to feedback, and your credibility grows substantially. Your credibility diminishes if you respond poorly or act on bad advice.

Giving feedback is one of the essential roles of a leader, but it can be the most uncomfortable.

The best leaders give feedback that heightens productivity; many leaders, however, inadvertently create resentment.

The good news is that there are behaviors you can adopt that increase your credibility in giving, getting, and responding to feedback.

After this live discussion, you will be able to give feedback that increases performance without creating resentment, gain and respond to feedback in ways that boost your credibility and enhance productivity, and learn when to ignore input altogether.