Rules Principles Strategy

We all want to be happy. At work, we want to be part of something bigger and meaningful. Each day, we do our best to try and make that something meaningful into a success.

Because essentially, we’re in the whole corporate game to win it, right? 

And that often means we need some rules.

At a recent Team Reboot, this had me thinking about how we play the game. More specifically, about rules, versus principles.

In my view, some rules are logical, and I’m sure you’d agree. But with so many misguided attempts to control and standardize, rules often become pointless. Over time, these actually work against us.

So now that we’re (somewhat) back in the game – shouldn’t we reassess how we play?

What’s The Difference?   

Rules and principles sound synonymous, but they’re not. 

A quick look at the Inside → Outside → Other Side framework illustrates it beautifully. 

Succinctly, our internal – or Inside – thoughts and beliefs are very powerful.

Like the 90% of an iceberg, they’re very real though, and they shape our external or Outside behaviors. 

Those behaviors, in turn, affect Others.

Rules don’t fundamentally change our emotional or psychological commitments.

Rules Vs. Principles

With that in mind, rules are externally-enforced edicts – top-down mandates imposed by leaders dictating how to behave. 

They’re about what – and what not – to do, e.g. “All ads must feature our logo five times,” or “Two coffee breaks a day.


Rules can be damaging because:

  • At their core, they hold very little meaning. Instead, they create pressure.
  • As such, they stifle creative expression
  • Rules don’t fundamentally change our emotional or psychological commitments. So they don’t really shape our long-term behavior. (You’re not drinking less coffee after work, now, are you?) 
  • Finally, rules require constant external enforcement too, or they lose even more meaning. Instead, they create more time-consuming duties like monitoring behavior, output, and results – they’re a surefire way for leaders to get caught up in the weeds.


Principles describe internally agreed-upon truths, and they’re often unspoken.

They come from values (our Inside qualities and standards) and entail the beliefs that shape our Outside actions.

For example: “Our regular clients come first,” or “There are no bad ideas.

Principles matter because:

  • We want united teams, firstly. When principles are shared, they create important, guiding boundaries that limit while leaving space for creative freedom. 
  • So, they help us innovate – whether we’re solving challenges, adapting to our environment, or finding new ways to deliver value. 
  • Principles encourage cohesiveness, and when we share commonalities, we plain old feel better. We communicate better. Collaboration improves. And harmony creates more pleasant team environments – right?
  • Most critically, many rules don’t address meaningful behavior. If you were “allowed” to use six, vs. five logos in an ad, would you care more about your clients?

As we get back together, now is the time to make choices about how we interact, and what we agree upon as we navigate our new reality. 

The things we choose to manage through rules or principles will determine our shared success. 

So will we play a rule-based game? Or will we choose to play a principle-based game?

What You Can Do

As we get back together, now is the time to make choices about how we interact, and what we agree upon as we navigate our new reality.

There are two great ways to do the latter.

1. Revisit your Rules

As teams and leaders, it’s time to rethink our rules. We’re navigating new terrain, so there’s never been a better time to challenge our sacred cows, removing or changing arbitrary edicts.

You may find many long-standing rules are pointless, not even missing them once they’re gone. 

2. Discover your Principles 

Second, discover your shared principles. This means tapping into your shared values – what are the truths that guide you? 

Team values activities such as manifesto writing, or “We are…” offer engaging ways for teams to discover what they deem most important.

In turn, these core drivers will shape your authentic ambition, and thus, your principles.

Over To You

Fear of chaos and loss aversion often make it very hard for leaders to get rid of any rules. We hang on to them and clarify gray areas with more rules – creating more work, and further dampening any chance at a creative, innovative culture.

Quite the contrary seems to be true, however. My colleague Marc has a super analogy that covers the whole matter beautifully: 

When a school fence is removed, one might expect the young students to run wild – possibly into danger. Experiments show, however, that without clear fencepost boundaries, they stayed even closer to the school building. 

I believe boundaries are important, of course. But the way we choose those boundaries matters, too. 

So as we ease back into the game, then – how will your organization choose to play it?