Tag Archive for: Standards

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.

Happy people at work with high standards and excellent workplace values

Turn Your Workplace Values into Standards

Transforming workplace values into actionable standards is more important than you think.

According to a 2024 DDI study, 57% of employees quit their jobs because of their boss, and 37% have considered leaving for this reason. These numbers are not isolated incidents. For example, 50% of employees in a 2022 Gallup study said they left their jobs to escape their manager. 

Turnover costs your company between 50 and 200 percent of the employee’s annual salary. To simplify the math, losing ten employees with a $100k average salary means you are throwing away $500k to $2m.

Managers want to do a good job, and people want to work where they feel appreciated and fit in. What accounts for the gaps?

Your values fail to set standards.

It’s a harsh reality that most company values statements are feel-good slogans that fail to shape behavior. 

What happens in the halls and video calls shines so brightly that your employees cannot see what’s written on the walls. You promote what you permit.

Standards, unlike slogans, clearly define what ‘right’ looks like and what’s unacceptable. They shape behavior, empowering you to create a productive, respectful, and supportive work environment that benefits your company and your employees. 

Here’s a simple example using the value of Respect, which a company might define as “We foster a positive work environment because we value our employees.”

There’s nothing wrong with the definition itself, but it provides little clarity on how you want people to behave and why.

Here’s what to do next

Turn the value into a standard using the “X so that Y” formula. 

We foster a positive work environment so that our employees feel valued, speak their minds, treat each other well, and cooperate. A respectful workplace environment encourages people to flag problems, offer fresh ideas, and try new things.

Next, add your standards.

The dance floor can help because it’s a visual that you can co-create with your employees to set clear standards for treating people with respect and defining unacceptable behaviors. Here’s a very simple version:

Finally, provide examples of employees living the values so that people can see themselves meeting the standards.

Susan and Mark had opposing views on building the sales team’s capacity. Susan wanted to boost employee training, while Mark wanted more investment in technology and AI. Instead of bickering, they agreed on a common goal: to improve the sales team’s performance by 20%. Once they created a shared goal, they could examine the best combination of training and technology to boost performance. They co-created options and determined the best way forward, boosting the sales team’s marginal contributions by over 30%.

Standards attract the right-fit prospects and inspire your top talent to stay because people who share the same standards feel like they fit in. 

Imagine what happens when people do not share the same standards. If Susan is an in-your-face “radical candor” enthusiast while Mark prefers agreeable disagreement, one will feel out of place and probably vote with their feet.

If you want your company to soar to new heights, co-create standards for your values and expectations.

Setting standards is part of my latest trademarked program, Building an Inspiring Culture®, which you can take on your own, or we can organize a live-led program for you and your team. 

The program gives you a repeatable, step-by-step process for Building an Inspiring Culture so that you can focus on strategy and growth because your employees meet your standards voluntarily without you having to micromanage. 

You get the practical tools and explicit processes to learn, teach, evaluate, and improve.

Here’s what the program looks like:

  1. Smart Start: Define your Organization’s Common Good
  2. Set Standards: Clarify your Expectations and Values
  3. Gain Buy-in so that people do what’s right voluntarily
  4. Accountability that improves future performance
  5. Build Cognitive Diversity so you make sound decisions and position people for success
  6. Create Psychological Confidence so people flag problems quickly and try new things
  7. How to Address Toxic Behavior so you walk the talk and retain your top talent.

Get the self-directed version here with lifetime access for $997, or hit reply to discuss if a live-led program is a good fit for you and your team.