If you want to learn the limitations of rule-setting very fast, spend some time as a manager.

In order to provide directions that actually work, you’ll sometimes find yourself giving instructions that pretty much seem to flatly contradict each other.

“Try to provide more detail in your questions.” “There’s no need to give so much information – keep it relevant and concise.”

“Try to figure things out for yourself whenever possible.” “If getting help is the simplest way to solve this, ask for it.”

“Focus on doing what’s in front of you.” “Think about how we can be doing things better.”

“You should take the time to make good work.” “It’s more important to just ship the work than to achieve perfection.”

If you’re lucky, you’ve found an employee who doesn’t get hidebound in following one instruction over another, or whose circuits don’t get fried by trying to hold two different pieces of instruction at once. But even then you find yourself trying to explain why two seemingly contradictory instructions actually make sense in the big picture.

You end up saying something like this.

The thing is, it’s the truth.

The truth is that rules do not exist in a workplace – at least not in functional reality. All your best-laid rules are indeed more like guidelines. And for every situation in which “the rules” work well, there is another in which the rules must be broken. There is no absolute, universal, context-independent code of workplace success. Workplace success takes good judgment, something which no rule can replace.

For an intern, that might mean breaking a “rule” about being in the office on time in order to finish a far more important task for the company. The better rules – create value and finish on time – beat the lesser rules every time.

Rules exist to be tested and transcended. They aren’t here to turn your employees or interns into followers or extensions of yourself. They’re here to enable better decision-making. They exist to get your ego out of the way so your employees can make more stable plans. More importantly, they exist to guide your employees toward the kind of judgment which will allow them to break the rules properly.

So keep providing direction. Don’t expect your directions to apply in every circumstance. And eagerly expect the moment when the person you manage becomes a better judge than you about what guidelines to apply where.

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