Keys to Effective Work Team Rule Compliance

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

The following article comes from my book, “Error Proof – How to Daily Goofs for Good.” You can buy the print or eBook at

When I work with groups to help them improve their processes, one of the first questions they ask is “How do you get people to follow the rules?” The question always interests me because it makes me wonder two things. First, what rule enforcement tactics have proven to be unsuccessful up until now? Second, why do they continue to use those tactics? What does it take to actually create high levels of effective work team rule compliance?

DISCOVER MORE: Join my 2-Day VIRTUAL Best Practices in Mistake Proofing and Corrective Action Writing workshop to learn more about effective work team rule enforcement!

Do Your Leaders Encourage Effective Work Team Rule Compliance?

I have gotten to know, and work with, hundreds of different work cultures over the years. There are many more consistencies than there are differences. The old adage still applies. People want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. We begin to complicate this simple concept up when we start to change the meanings of ‘work’ and ‘pay.’

Following the rules is usually part of one’s job. I don’t know of any job where there is not at least a basic set of rules that leaders expect all employees to follow. That said, all of us know that people are notorious rule breakers (at least certain ones). In addition to being proficient at rule breaking, most people are quite skilled at giving you a very logical rationalization for why they did what they did (usually some type of low-risk situation).

There is one question to start with if you want to diagnose your culture when it comes to rule enforcement. Do we have a risk-based or a rule-based work culture? Responses to this question vary much more across groups than they do when you ask the same groups about their definition of fair compensation. Risk-based cultures and error proof strategies however do not always mix that well.

LEARN MORE: Four Steps to Effective Work Team Rule Enforcement

How Do Your Leaders Enforce the Rules Each Day?

A variety of different forms of enforcement are available for use.  Additionally, we can view rule enforcement from a positive and negative perspective. Each form of enforcement works equally well – for a while. Penalty flags, signs of shame, and employee of the month awards are all forms of enforcement that have their pros and cons.

I use the Enforcement Matrix with leadership teams to help them define where their current enforcement tendencies lie. More importantly, I want to help leaders identify how they strategically want to enforce the rules in the future. Certain rule enforcement strategy mixes are incompatible with certain types of work and organizational goals. For example, high-risk work requires more stringent rule enforcement. Here is some additional detail on the four quadrants that make up the Enforcement Matrix.

LEARN MORE: Effective Rule Enforcement

Two Forms of Negative Rule Enforcement

Formal Negative – This form of enforcement ranges from a formal verbal warning to termination. When the verbal warning is documented, these four steps make up the progressive discipline process that many are familiar with. You will not have much success using that process however as an error-proofing safeguard. Formal negative enforcement is an effective way to drive problems underground and create an ‘I won’t get caught’ culture. Also, this approach helps weed out people that the hiring process should have kept out of the workplace to begin with.

Informal Negative – This is probably the most commonly used and damaging approach of the four. Leaders commonly use this tactic because it is quick, low in cost, and familiar to us. Getting reprimanded, talked to, and yelled at is what parents, coaches, teachers, and police officers do. It is the most common form of enforcement that we experience in life. Unfortunately, adults who nag do not work very well as a corrective action, not matter how often you try to use it as a fix.

Two Forms of Positive Rule Enforcement

Informal Positive – This the most effective, yet least commonly used, approach to rule enforcement. One reason for its success might lie in the fact that most people don’t see this type of feedback very often. Informal positive feedback needs to be meaningful and consistent. Leaders need to link such feedback to the effort that deserves the feedback. If a leader understands their processes, knows their people, and knows how well the process performs and where the headaches are, he or she can provide this type of feedback.

Formal Positive – This is the second most common form of enforcement. Some say such giveaways only pay people more for what they are already receive a wage to do, but … Formal positive recognition ranges from giveaways to profit sharing. It is an effective means to reinforce the right way to do things and attract attention to what is important to the company and team. Done incorrectly, this type of recognition can be a waste of money. It can actually damage the credibility of the leadership team behind the recognition program itself.

EXPLORE MORE: How to Measure Leadership Behavior Effectiveness

How to Identify Your Dominant Rule Compliance Strategy

One effective way to use the Enforcement Matrix is to populate each of the four squares with two percentages. First, we identify our current rule enforcement tendencies. Second, we identify where we would like to be. The total in each case must add up to 100%. This approach is one way, for example, to surface the mental models that leaders may have about the use of discipline as a corrective action. The formal negative percentage is typically the lowest of the four in high performance companies.

There is no one set of percentages to recommend. Your current workforce mix, job mix, skill mix, and culture all play a role as you determine the mix of enforcement strategies that you currently need to use. The key is that (1) you know where you are at and (2) you know where you want to go. You will close the ‘current versus future’ rule enforcement style gap over time, at the pace you want to go, as you make strategic, versus reactive, changes.

Which of these four enforcement types do you think is the most effective? The correct answer, in my experience, is not the one many would select. Informal positive seems to work the best when done correctly because it is an everyday thing. Such reinforcement makes a difference. Once you see it in action, you will become as big of an advocate as I am.

The best form of enforcement is the type that EACH leader develops with EACH member of their team through positive relationship development. Each leader works to develop meaningful relationships with their team through the use of positive, daily, meaningful, and consistent performance feedback.

DISCOVER MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

From Spacely to Smiley

Before we chastise our leaders too much, we might want to ask the question “Where did our leaders learn their enforcement skills from?” The bigger question might be “Where did our leaders learn their leadership skills from?” If we consider their answers – coaches, teachers, parents, clergy, and peers – we can better understand why so few of us are very good at positive informal or formal behavior enforcement.

Our television bosses, at least when I was a young boy, were not good leadership role models for today’s workforce. What worked as leadership in the 1960s for Mr. Spacely, Mr. Mooney, and Mr. Slate – yell at people to get results – would not work today. Instead, it is key that we teach leaders how to give meaningful, positive enforcement daily. We have to help them design their jobs to help make this practice a daily habit.

Once we see and experience positive informal enforcement a few times, we can quickly begin to use the practice more effectively. Leaders often need the positive self-experience, however, to convince them that an alternative, positive form of leadership can improve results. Leaders may need to practice these ‘new’ skills in an environment where it is ‘safe’ to learn in order to feel comfortable with this practice.

EXPLORE MORE: How to Develop Effective Work Team Leaders

The Need for a Compelling WHY!

One way to help leaders think about effective rule enforcement is to have them answer the “Why do we have to do this?” question. ‘Because my boss told me to’ is not a good answer. Instead, you want your leaders to be able to link the need for correct task performance with personal, team, and site success. They have to be able to describe a ‘compelling’ why’ for rule compliance. Build the relationships and reinforce the behaviors you desire daily.

Engage, Enforce, Empower. It could be your new rule enforcement mantra.

LEARN MORE: How Effective is Your Leadership Work System?

Effective Work Team Rule Compliance Best Practices

  • It all begins with clearly written expectations and consequences. If one fails to clearly define a rule, they should almost expect it to be broken more often.
  • Recognize that how leaders communicate rules to their work teams matters. Don’t count on others to sell the importance of a rule unless that person has a strong commitment to its compliance.
  • Recognize that leaders who fail to say anything when a rule is broken still senda message about how important the rule they see broken ‘must be.’
  • Paperwork content, recognition programs, training content and delivery, audit content and use, and daily supervisory actions are all examples of enforcement vehicles. Each approach, however, does not work with the same level of effectiveness.
  • It might be tough to prove, but experience had sold me on the belief that positive enforcement works a whole lot better than negative enforcement.
  • Leaders must manage site leadership norms, good or bad, just as they must manage personal leadership behaviors and actions. A formal, survey-based Leadership Index can help measure such progress and gaps in both cases.
  • The use of examples, such as “Absolutes List” can help clarify when the use of progressive discipline will occur. More importantly, the organization might want to view the need to use negative, as opposed to positive, enforcement as special cause variation. Such variation is something Shewhart said should only occur less than one out a hundred times.

EXPLORE MORE: Process Improvement Strategies

Would You Like Your Leaders to Encourage More Effective Work Team Rule Compliance?

If you have questions or would like help to improve your daily work team rule compliance efforts, message or email me at We can set up a time to talk further about these options and which one might best meet your current assessment and improvement needs.

Keep improving!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

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