Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 9;   February 27, 2002: Heavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never

Heavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never

by

As a leader you carry a heavy burden. You're accountable for everything from employee development to meeting organizational objectives, and many of these responsibilities conflict. Life is tough enough, but most of us pile on a load of over-generalized rules of work life — a load too heavy for anyone to bear.

We all carry around a heavy burden of over-generalized rules: I must always do this, I must never do that. I first learned of these rules from the work of Virginia Satir, who called them "survival rules." Rules usually have relevance and value, but in their over-generalized forms, they limit our choices and lead us into trouble.

An overloaded transport busAn example: "An effective leader must always communicate and provide leadership and motivation." While a laudable goal, it isn't always possible. For instance, you might be directed to withhold certain information, or you might have an employee or two who are so distracted by problems at home that they cannot be motivated — by anyone.

Anyone who believes that an effective leader must always communicate, lead, and motivate, risks feeling bad most of the time, because the standard is so often unachievable.

Our example has the form "I must always X," but rules can take other forms: "I must never X," "I should X," "I should always X," and so on. Their unforgiving language leads to trouble: if you violate X, you're not an effective leader. Life is not like that — there are always circumstances. Sometimes those circumstances provide good reason for not "meeting the standard," but the rules make no allowances for Life.

We all carry around
rules that limit our choices
and lead us into trouble
To see the impossibility of adhering to these rules, apply a simple test. Certainly if you must do something, you can do it, so if you change must to can, the statement should be true. If it isn't, you have an impossible rule. Our example becomes "An effective leader can always communicate and provide leadership and motivation." Laughably impossible.

Because of our rules, we can feel guilty when we're innocent. And because of our rules, we have "buttons" that other people can push. Fortunately, Virginia Satir has given us a way to shed the burden that rules impose. She called it Rule Transformation.

Rule transformations have two steps. You first change the rule to a guideline, and then you add conditions for its application. In our example, we change "must always" to "can sometimes" to make it a guideline, and then we add some conditions:

An effective leader can sometimes communicate and provide leadership and motivation, when communication is appropriate, when people are able to accept leadership, and when they can be motivated.

This form removes much of the unbearable burden from the leader, and acknowledges that other people have roles to play, too.

What are your rules? To find some examples, saddle up your favorite search engine and search for "an effective leader should," "an effective leader must," "leaders must never," "the best leaders always," and so on.

See how many of the rules you find are rules you carry around with you every day. When you find one, transform it. You will have set down a heavy burden. Go to top Top  Next issue: Mastering Meeting Madness  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenxAhHFvWKdolAIpPyner@ChacEyZsnFcwljMJPNkMoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A rock climber in Joshua Tree National Park, United StatesLet Me Finish, Please
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
A voteDecisions, Decisions: II
Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions?
The U.S. Capitol at nightExcuses, Excuses
When a goal remains unaccomplished, we sometimes tell ourselves that we understand why. And sometimes we do. But at other times, we're just fooling ourselves.
Six kids on a PlayPumpThe Questions Not Asked
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
A piece of chocolate cakeEgo Depletion and Priority Setting
Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Prof. Tom PettigrewComing February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
Daffodils of the variety Narcissus 'Barrett Browning'And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenejteDdJLoXThogjCner@ChacEiOncnUnUfBbTrTEoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.