To follow a rule

Without rules organisational life would be impossible. They enable and constrain, they set out codes of social conduct between different groups of people, often with different and potentially rival professional backgrounds, trying to get things done together. And they often codify and represent more symbolic and aspirational themes of organisational life: they declare that such and such an organisation takes itself seriously as a professional place to work, and aspires for its staff to act in civilised ways in public and within the institution. Rules may encode organisational habits, routine ways of getting things done more efficiently which have evolved over time. They are also manifestations of political struggles taking place within organisations, which may be compromises between rival positions, but at the very will least tell you something about the particular figuration of power which staff are experiencing in an organisation at any one time. Who sets the rules, why and when they set them, how they are applied, all say something about organisational politics and what GH Mead referred to as the ‘struggle over the life-process of the group’.

Organisational rules can be both explicit, implicit and perhaps hybrid, with explicit rules evolving implicit corollaries, and whether they are one or the other tells an outsider nothing about the degree to which one is obliged to conform to them. Organisational rules may be explicit but more observed in the breach, or implicit and closely followed as a means of including and excluding. In this post I will be dealing just with the more explicit variety and the way that staff take them up, contributing to the stable instability of organisations, which I have been writing about in previous posts.

Although ostensibly introduced by managers to regularise work and make it more predictable they always have unintended consequences and call out different responses in staff, depending on how they are implemented and responded to by all concerned. Rules, like values, are general and abstract, and both may provoke strong feelings in staff. Their general nature requires employees to improvise on them in order to fit the particular circumstances with which a particular member of staff is dealing. As Wittgenstein noted, there is nothing so obvious about rules that they speak for themselves and need no interpretation. Setting and following rules is a highly social activity that needs interpretation, negotiation and compromise. Particularly in cases where there is an insistence that the rule be followed no matter what the circumstances, and without compromise, this may call out highly subversive and even deviant behaviour in staff, sometimes contributing to bringing about the very opposite of what the rules were intended to prevent in the first place.

I was reflecting on this recently because ever since I have joined my institution I have found it harder and harder to get things done. This ranges from booking things like hotels or conference centres, to getting contracted staff paid, through to taking quite small initiatives. Previously as a manager with a given level of authority within the institution I would simply go ahead and book what needed booking, and pay who needed paying, organise what needed organising. Now I am hedged round with requisition forms, purchase orders and injunctions not to commit to ‘verbal orders’ with ‘service providers’, even though these ‘service providers’ may be colleagues I have worked with for many years. It is a conundrum to know how one might organise something, or invite someone to speak without committing oneself verbally.

Although up till now my bosses’ signature was enough to verify what I had done, now my boss may have to have things signed off by her boss, which in turn might be called into question by quite junior members of staff in the finance department for ‘not following the rules’. These rules may be new, or may have lain dormant for years with few people following them, not even finance staff who are the supposed guardians of them, which are now being reinstituted with a good deal of vigour by some. This may be as a way of covering over their own complicity and embarrassment at not having ‘followed the rules’ themselves for some years, but this reaction often leads to my receiving peremptory e-mails pointing out my breaches of conduct and directing me via url to the institution’s web pages where the rules are publically available. Sometimes I am reminded that the most senior manager in the institution himself has recommitted everyone to these rules, it is implied, as a moral duty. Technical procedures are thus cloaked in the language of moral imperative and authority.

As I indicated earlier, in the first flush of a new rule regime, or the reinstatement of an old one, there are often a lot of unintelligent demands to follow the rules to the letter, and which brook no exceptions. That is, until we all adjust to each other’s circumstances, or learn how to game the new regime to get done what needs doing. An example of lack of reflexivity on the part of rule-guardians, sometimes self-appointed, may take the form of insisting again and again that the level of spend on a particular contracted staff member requires repeatedly justifying why I am not putting the work out to tender, even though the contracted staff member is in the middle of a long piece of work and is doing the work exceptionally well. In these sorts of circumstances what I experience as particularly frustrating, as may others, is the inability to negotiate the meaning of the rule in this particular case. Insisting that there is only one interpretation of the rule is of course a very powerful gesture of control and domination.

It may happen that as the new regime becomes more routine, the stakes become less high and we learn to trust each other, it becomes more possible to make mutual agreements. The rule-guardian and those required to follow it negotiate that the rule need not be followed in this particular case, or as things bed down employees find ways to game the rule regime to justify what they intend doing anyway. There are good examples of recent collusive and individual gaming in the UK when British MPs managed in some cases to claim tens of thousands of pounds in expenses, while at the same time claiming, often quite rightly, that they hadn’t broken any of the rules or that they had been encouraged to do so by the office regulating MPs expenses.

No organisational system of rules, no matter how elaborate, can eliminate employee discretion. All employees are likely to aim for a degree of self-control and autonomy, and most organisations say that they aspire for their employees to have it. So staff are likely actively to resist some aspects of organisational control, while going along with others and the pattern of resistance may also amplify rivalries between different professional groups.

In my own institution, a university, one way of interpreting the introduction of this particular set of financial rules is as another manifestation of the ascendancy, over the last two decades or so, of the managerial and financial professional groups over the academic cadre. This has been written about extensively elsewhere and is mirrored in other public institutions such as health and education in the UK where groups of managers have come to dominate. This is not to argue that universities were necessarily better educational institutions when academics prevailed, but  merely that there has been a significant shift in power relations in terms of who decides and about what, and according to what ideology. Increasingly, and as elsewhere, the prevailing orthodoxy in universities in Britain is economic rationality and the three ‘E’s of efficiency, effectiveness and economy. It becomes very hard to justify learning for learning’s sake, running some programmes at a loss because of the prestige and status that they bring, or allowing for autonomy in the fulfilment of other stated organisational goods, such as being ‘agile’ or ‘entrepreneurial’, because these goods are much less rule-governed and rely upon judgement, interpretation, and agonistic discussion.

Sometimes slavishly following a rule is the easier course to take. I am reminded of a passage from Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man:

‘In the contemporary period, the technological controls appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests – to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all the counteraction impossible…The intellectual and emotional refusal ‘to go along’ appears neurotic and impotent..The impact of progress turns Reason into submission to the facts of life, and to the dynamic capability of producing more and bigger facts of the same sort of life.’

There have always been rules as long as there have been groups, but the nature of the rules and the way they are played out are good indications of the dominance of particular groups in society.


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