Rules versus Values

Humans rightly or wrongly need rules.

We need rules, because we can’t be trusted without.

Rules protect us from harm and set default pathways – right and wrong.

Rules are often boring, but set the basics that guide society to science.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” 
Pablo Picasso


Rules are said to be ‘made to be broke,’ and often, yet not always, mirror our cultural values in our communities and where we work. Rules, especially more formal laws, evolve with society to protect the rights and safety of the population – ethics, privacy, safety and otherwise. As technology, globalisation and other factors change our world, so do rules.

Sadly, those in position of power, financial, political and otherwise, have been proven historically not able to be trusted to self regulate to ensure they operate to ethical values without enforceable rules.  

Since back in Ancient Egyptian times as far back as 3000BC, the rules of law have guided our social equality and impartiality. King Hammurabi further developed Babylonian law around 1760 BC by codifying and inscribing it in stone and placing copies of Hammurabi’s law code throughout the kingdom of Babylon, providing a primitive constitution for the people and government. Rules are there to protect us.

Yet, our values are what drives change, progress and innovation.

The values come back to our cultural ethics, which guide us in what is good or bad, right or wrong, in a given situation. They regulate a person’s behaviour or conduct and help us collectively live a good life. A code of conduct agreed and adopted by the people and communities. From our professions seeking to maintain the highest ethical standards, to our wider population to guide how we behave and what we strive towards.

Values set a standard of ethics to which we interact with each other …

  1. Normative (how one ought to act);
  2. Personal (what an individual believes about right and wrong);
  3. Social (how to act with social responsibility); and
  4. Professional (standards of behaviour expected by professionals).


Rules are often, but not always, set to project our values, our moral code. Strong cultures thrive from shared valued, and an aligned vision. Working towards the greater good, with shared values, beyond ‘what’s in it for me?’ and other forms of self interest.

Finding the balance between rules and values can be hard. Are we led by rules or values? Likely the answer is somewhere between.

The likes of McDonald’s was seeded by the McDonald brothers in 1948 establishing a streamlined system with a simple menu which consisted of only hamburgers, cheeseburgers, potato chips, coffee, soft drinks, and apple pie. Yet, over the years with changing consumer demand and needs, a level of flexibility has been adopted to allow for cultural differences worldwide.  

Some countries are more rule based than others. Among the most rule based cultures are Singapore, Japan, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Syria, Iran and North Korea (More >).  Rules are set to protect religious and political values, and to guide idealistic cities.

For example, North Korea has a strict fashion code, for example women are not allowed to wear pants and men should cut their hair every 15 days. Strict adherence to rules including public drunkenness, chewing gum and e-cigarettes is said to make Singapore a world-class economy with standards of living rated higher than most advanced nations (More >).

In a workplace context, the question as whether the culture is rules or values based is critical. Going too far either way is likely to stifle change, progress and innovation; or be met with inefficiencies and even anarchy. 

The debate as to rules versus values, could be likened to risk versus creativity. A workplace culture leaning too far toward risk minimisation, is likely to have limited creativity and associated innovation. A culture leaning too far towards creativity may find critical metrics such as productivity and profitability struggling. A values based creative culture may generate more ideas, yet without the rules based precision and focus.

So what can happen is that a values based cultures, with little adherence to critical rules, may fail to sustain themselves, cover the financial and other obligations and fade away. Often the rules based cultures prosper, yet run the risk of creating a robot like culture. Survival without joy or freedom.

The answer comes back to the right balance. 

Defining the critical rules that ensure people know their right from wrong, and systemisation is embedded into the culture to remove the mundane and ensure some consistency in the product and/or service. Yet, critically, allowing the culture to led by values that guide the way forward. Where the business is heading – towards the greater good, with shared values, beyond ‘what’s in it for me?’ and other forms of self interest.

It is a fine line. Too far towards rules is a robot like dictatorship. Where is the fun in that?  Too far towards values won’t work, the robots also win.

Please do not let the robots win.

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