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Explanations > Values > Rules

Rule sets | What are rules? | So What?


Values can be interpreted as just another instance of the broader class of rules. Values can be personal rules or shared with others, for example as social norms or company values.

Rule sets

Other sets of rules include:

  • Professional ethics
  • Club membership rules
  • Company policies
  • National laws
  • Religious dogma
  • Family rules

What are rules?

Rules are the 'lubricants of society'. They let us do things and prevent us from doing wrong, which in social terms usually means harming others in some way. They help us decide and lead to harmony with others as we all obey the same rule-set.

Mandating action

Rules can mandate action, telling you what you must always do in particular circumstances. Mandatory rules can also tell you what you must not do.

For example:

  • Company rules about turning up on time.
  • Social norms about responding to a question.
  • National laws about not carrying guns.

Mandatory rules are usually precise and clear. They also often have specific punishments that will be applied if rules are not followed.

Encouraging action

Some rules are not strictly mandatory, but they do act to encourage certain actions.

For example:

  • Social norms that encourage contribution to charities.
  • Family conventions that encourage members to take exercise.
  • Company values that encourage sharing.

The reality of encouragement rules can vary as some people avoid or even react against conforming while others embrace the ideal.

Allowing action

Rules can also simply give permission for particular actions, giving you the choice of what to do.

For example:

  • Company policies that allow you to take holidays.
  • Personal values that allow for sleeping in at the weekends.
  • National laws that permit public protest.

Bounding action

Rules can also provide boundaries, where you are permitted to act but only within certain limits or constraints.

For example:

  • Company expense rules that put a cap on how much can be spent on hotels.
  • Laws that prohibit trespass on private land.
  • Family rules that require children to be home by a certain time.

Boundaries can be hard, with clear definitions. They can also be quite soft when the boundaries are unclear and consequences for breaking the rules are progressive.

Defining criteria

Rules need not always define action. They can also require consideration of specific criteria when making decisions.

For example:

  • Social rules that require considering a friend's feelings before deciding.
  • Company recruitment policies that define considerations for selecting new employees.
  • National laws that define how prison sentences are to be decided.

Setting priorities

Rules can also set priorities, saying what is more important or less important. These are useful when there are conflicts within decisions, helping people choose the most important things.

For example:

  • Social norms whereby men will let women go through a door before them.
  • Company policies that give precedence to high-performers when allocating people to key projects.
  • Family rules where parental preferences are more important than those of their children.

Rules about rules

A final category about rules is the rules for creating, sustaining and changing rules. These 'meta-rules' are critical for ensuring rules work in practice. Nothing brings rules into disrepute quicker than people not following them and nothing happening in consequence.

For example:

  • Company processes for how new policies are defined.
  • Family rules that say only parents can administer punishment for transgression.
  • A national constitution that defines how new laws are brought into force.

So what?

Understand rules within any group where you engage with others and either follow these or be prepared for the consequences.

You can also use rules to get people to take actions. Quoting rules at people can be very effective in persuading them to conform.

See also

Groups, Social Norms, Conformance Principle


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