Workplace Rules: 3 Tips to Make Them Stick

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "What You Do Is Who You Are" by Ben Horowitz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you set clear rules for your employees? How well do people understand and follow the rules?

CEO and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz draws on historical examples to show how you can provide cultural leadership in your organization. For lessons on workplace rules, Horowitz looks to Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture and offers three tips for making rules that stick.

Keep reading to learn how to set effective workplace rules.

Make Workplace Rules That Stick

To emphasize the need to be trustworthy, Louverture forbade officers from cheating on their wives or having concubines, although it had been common practice in times of war. The rule prompted questions, and Louverture explained that officers who cheated on their wives couldn’t be trusted in other matters either. Horowitz emphasizes making workplace rules that surprise people and force them to think about the principle behind the behavior, like Louverture’s rule for officers. 

(Shortform note: Horowitz’s assessment of the rule’s purpose might be incorrect. As CLR James explained in The Black Jacobins, this rule was part of Louverture’s plan for building a respectable Catholic society. Forbidding concubines was a way for Haitians to simultaneously recall customs from their native cultures, such as the faithful keeping of wives, and emulate virtues of French society.)

Horowitz says that, to make a workplace rule stick, make sure that:

  • People will remember the rule. It has to be explicit and specific enough that people have no difficulty remembering the rule—and the cultural virtue behind it.
  • People will apply the rule every day. It has to be relevant to an action employees take every day, so they have the chance to engage with it regularly and internalize it.
  • The rule will make people ask “why?” and the answer they get will point them to the cultural tenet behind it. The rule has to be surprising and thought-provoking so employees ask why it exists—and the answer has to encourage them to reflect on the virtue underlying the expected behavior.
A Rule That Helps Embody the Virtue

In his book Turn the Ship Around!, L. David Marquet shares an example of a rule that sticks. To improve morale among the crew of the submarine he led, he established a “three-name rule.” The rule required that when any crew member saw a visitor, he would greet the person using three names: the visitor’s name, his name, and the ship’s name. For example: “Good morning Commodore Kenny, my name is Petty Officer Smith. Welcome aboard Santa Fe.”

The rule was catchy and hence easy to remember, and it was one they would apply several times a day. But instead of making crew members ask why the rule was instituted, it made them actively embody the virtue Marquet wanted them to demonstrate: being proactive.

Example: Amazon’s Rule of Frugality

Horowitz highlights Amazon’s emphasis on frugality as a memorable rule in modern-day business culture. At its founding, Amazon made a rule that everyone should “accomplish more with less.” Employees remembered the rule and applied it every day because their desks were frugally made out of cheap doors nailed to legs. If someone asked why they couldn’t have regular desks, managers reiterated the rule to accomplish more with less.

(Shortform note: Through their culture of frugality, Amazon has been able to reduce costs and offer low prices in a way that forces competitors to play according to their rules—an example of a culture disrupting entire industries. Some argue, however, that Amazon’s frugality can turn into not giving their employees the time and resources necessary to do their jobs safely and ignoring their needs by not giving them enough time for bathroom breaks.)

Workplace Rules: 3 Tips to Make Them Stick

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  • The three reasons leaders should care about culture
  • How a sense of purpose boosts employees' performance
  • What the Samurai and Genghis Khan can teach you about leadership

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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