TLC 9 | Writing Rules


We always hear the quote, “rules are meant to be broken.” Consequently, people have been living by that, often breaking the rules and getting into trouble. How, then, can we make them follow instead of disobeying? Jeffrey Edwards invites an expert on this area, Lewis S. Eisen. As the author of the international bestselling book, How to Write Rules that People Want to Follow: A Guide to Writing Respectful Policies and Directives, Lewis provides a unique view that emphasizes the role of lawmakers in making it possible for people to follow the rules. He discusses the differences between a well-written policy and a poorly written one, how managers can engage and keep their people motivated, and why policies should support the vision. Join Jeffrey and Lewis in this conversation to learn more about writing your policies in a way where people actually follow them and do it gladly.

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Writing Rules That People Will Follow With Lewis S. Eisen

I’m excited to be here with you. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day and to share some insights and education on leadership that can help you and the people around you perform better, be better, feel better about what you’re doing and make that impact in your environment. This episode is one of these opportunities that I cherish because it’s an opportunity to bring someone in who has the experience and insights that sometimes can overlook in the workplace. From the position of leadership, it’s how often do we hear, it is not what we say, but how we say it and the implications of that.

Our guest is someone who is an expert in that field, someone that I have high respect. He’s a great guy. Let me introduce to you our guest. He has worked as a lawyer, an IT manager, a business consultant, an information management specialist and a government policy writer. He combines them all to teach people how to break the mold of negativity around policies and to draft rules in a way that’s positive and helpful. He is the author of the international bestselling book, How to Write Rules That People Want to Follow: A Guide to Writing Respectful Policies and Directives. Please welcome to the show, Mr. Lewis Eisen.

Thank you, Jeff. I am delighted to be here.

It’s awesome to have you here. I’m reading through your bio and we’ve known each other for a few years. Every time I read through your stuff, I go curious, what is it about the topic of policies that attracted you to write about this topic and share it up there?

I’ve worked for a while at a number of government organizations. When I got to one of the large ones, my team came up to me and said, “We have a compliance problem. We have all these rules and nobody is listening.” I took a look at the policies and I read them. They were full of bold and italic sentences in all capital letters and harsh words like, “No exceptions will be made.” I realized that policies have a tone of voice and coming from a legal background, there’s a methodology to writing legislation that’s straight forward. When you follow the methodology or you follow the wording styles, then you can spend your time discussing the content, not the style. Most people I find get hung up on, “Should I say it this way? Should I say it that way?” When they do say it, it comes out in this tone of voice that doesn’t induce people to comply.

As you’re saying that, I’m thinking back because I read in your book where you made the statement that well-written policies don’t sound like angry parents talking to their naughty children. It’s like, “That’s the way I felt when I’d read the policy. I felt like I was back in school.” What was the difference between a well-written policy versus a poorly-written policy?

Let’s accept that the goal of a policy is to help the business function properly, to help people work properly. A poorly written policy is one that doesn’t move you in that direction. There are a couple of things that could do that. One is a lack of clarity. It’s not clear what decision you’ve made and the second is an attitude that comes across that gets people’s back up. The parents yelling at their children that you talk about, that’s common in policies that you see nowadays. It’s an old style. It’s an antiquated style, but it’s still common out there. It comes from a day when we had a hierarchical work structure. When the people on the top used to talk like that to the people that worked for them and nobody spoke back. You’d never dream of saying to your boss, “You need to talk to me more respectfully.” That was not done many years ago. The written language reflects that attitude at that time. It’s poorly-written if it isn’t written in a way that induces people to want to follow it.

They’re like an old command control-type environment back in the days when our parents were working. That was the culture where you didn’t ask questions, you didn’t talk back to your manager. You did what you were told.

I have to admit, there’s a generational aspect. I know that I look 25 and you often get confused, but I’m a Baby Boomer.

The purpose of the policy is to clarify the expectation. Click To Tweet

 Sometimes I wonder when did you graduate?

As a Baby Boomer, I grew up listening to that kind of attitude and thinking that’s the way you should talk to people. Young parents nowadays, they don’t talk to their kids that way. Millennials who come out into the workforce, they don’t expect to be spoken to that way. That scolding attitude, that finger-wagging that comes out in the policy is off-putting for them.

What would be an example that you could provide that would distinguish a well-worded versus a poorly worded policy?

We’re in the middle of a COVID crisis and a good example is a policy that says, “Customers must wear a mask while in the store, no exceptions.” It is a poorly worded policy and a very common one. If people write it like that, it’s very poorly worded for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s quite divisive. It separates the customers from you. You’ve immediately said, “You are not one of us. This is not our problem. It’s not everybody’s problem. This is your problem, the customer, so we are giving you an order.” The second problem is using terms like must and should. They are valued judgment based. Instead of saying something like, “Our policy is that customers wear masks in the store,” to say, “Our policy is the customers must wear masks in the store,” immediately brings you to the parent-child dynamic as they called it in transactional analysis, instead of an adult-adult dynamic. Have you positioned the listener as the child in the relationship as the subordinate?

There are some people who would say that some adults need to be spoken to in a direct manner like children because given the choice, they may choose not to comply or not to follow what’s going on.

That’s true. There are people that need to be spoken to in that stricter tone of voice. The problem is as a business, you do not want to cater to those people because when you do that, you alienate everybody else. The sign in the coffee shop that says, “No yelling, no swearing, no spitting.” You might look at that and think, “I wouldn’t do that anyway,” but you also said and you wonder, “Why did they put that up there? What goes on at this coffee shop that they have to put that sign up there?

It might be the 10:00 at rumble that they have when people come in on their breaks. I’m not sure. I’m hearing what you’re saying and I’m listening to some of the rules and mandates that are being put out at this time. The one thing that brings back to me is someone who is in a position of leadership. Someone who’s that mid-level manager, who has a team of people that they’re working with. Oftentimes, those managers, those leaders are the ones who are seen and expected to enforce the policy. In your experience, what have you found has been helpful for those managers who are trying to engage and try and keep their people motivated and yet, they still feel that they have to have this cloud over their heads like they’re Big Brother on their people?

In that situation, when you look at an organization and you see a lot of policies with that harsh language, that usually tells you that there is no proper enforcement mechanism in that organization. Because there’s no enforcement mechanism, they end up yelling at people because there are some people who don’t hear it the first time. They add words to the policy. If the only tool you’re going to give them is words, they keep adding words to the policy. No exceptions, never do this. Enforcement is a different problem from the policy. The purpose of the policy is to clarify the expectation.

That’s the purpose of the policy. You tell people whether you want things to be red, green, blue, or yellow. If people are not following that, that’s not the job of that policy to tell them how you’re going to punish them if they don’t follow that. You have an HR regimen and all your policies should be subject to however your employee discipline happens as a matter. When somebody signs up to be an employee, they agreed to follow all policies, present, and future. The mechanism that you have for the bad employee or the employee that needs more discipline doesn’t belong inside the document that explains how to do things right.

TLC 9 | Writing Rules

How to Write Rules That People Want to Follow: A Guide to Writing Respectful Policies and Directives

It sounds like instead of writing for the lowest common denominator that you’re writing to a larger proportion of the population where you had that an expectation that we were hiring people into our organization that is responsible and aware. We want to speak to them on that level versus anyone who comes in here, we’re going to run you through this classroom session, this tutorial on how to operate here and what the standards are like. You’re almost going into a classroom of discipline to learn how things are done here.

If I can give you another concrete example, there are many workplaces that would like everybody to clean their station at the end of the day. It could be a bakery, a factory, or even an office, but if you had a policy like, “Everybody must clean their desk at the end of the day. Clean your workstation,” you’re not getting anywhere. All you do is sound like a parent nagging their kid to clean their room. We all were in that situation and we know how well it worked. The better thing to do is to help articulate what does a clean workspace looks like.

I had an organization that had a lot of playrooms for children, and they had never articulated well like, “It means toys on the shelf. It means cupboard doors closed. It means no visible papers.” If you put them in a position where they had to define what it looked like, and then they could have the rest of their employees and people feed-in and say, “I can do that. I can’t do that,” and have a discussion over the logistics of what constitutes a clean workplace and how easy is it or hard to get there rather than whether mommy is scolding you and telling you to clean up your room.

What underlies a well-worded policy is giving people an understanding as to the why. I think back to Simon Sinek when we talk about Start With Why. People will engage and be more attentive when they understand the reasons behind what is being shared or what’s being sold, versus being told what it is.

I am certain that the reason why is one of the elements that has to be there because without it, people think you’re making rules for the sake of rules. The other element that should be or shouldn’t be in the policy is the micromanagement that a lot of policies get. For instance, if you have a policy that says, “The HR Lead needs to consider the complaint and make a decision.” If they need to make a decision, they have to consider the complaint. By putting that in the policy, you are micromanaging them. It’s like, “Please sign here to show that you’ve read and understood this document.” You can’t have understood it if you didn’t read it. It’s that real micromanagement that says, “Here’s what you need to do. You need to read this, look at it, look up any words you don’t understand, and ask the questions.” That’s micromanagement and that doesn’t belong in the policy.

I’m holding back from laughing at some of them. I am going back to my experiences in the workplace and in places I’ve been to where I remember that. It’s like, “Why wouldn’t I? Is there a logical process here? I’m not going to give an answer if I haven’t given it some consideration.” For you the tap to tell me, remind me, it almost sounds like I have no clue what I’m doing.

In that particular case, what the employer wants is some assurance that the employee says, “I will be bound by the contents of the document.” You want them to say, “I will be bound,” and an intelligent person would read and understand it before they would say that. If they don’t, they’re adults. I don’t think we should treat them as children because there will be some people who need an extra kick in the pants.

What do you say though, Lewis, that there are some work environments where people are simply afraid? I’m thinking of someone who either promotes their position or is on that track where it’s like, “I don’t want to look stupid. I don’t want people to think that I’m not qualified.” They may say, “I’ll enforce wherever I’m told to do because that’s what everyone else around me is doing.”

Can you give me an instance?

If you're going to implement change in your organization, what you need to change is the culture. Click To Tweet

I remember one time I was working with an organization. When it came employee’s leaves, there was a situation where it was offline saying, “We have someone who has a death in the family.” There are only so many days that they had to for bereavement leave. There was a certain level of discretion at the manager level as to how much time they can give. Either many companies have policies on how much time they can give around, but I think in this case, the manager is asking the question, “Is this person struggling? How much latitude do I have or to consider at least to look at what would be the best for this person in this situation that’s going to be fair to them?”

You started that question off by using the word culture. I think that’s a real keyword when you started the first time you asked it. If the culture is such that people are doing a certain way, the managers sort of following along. Truth is if you’re going to implement change in your organization, what you need to change is the culture. If we have a problem that people aren’t cleaning up their workspace, it’s because the culture is like that. You can put all the threats in the world inside a policy, but it’s not going to change anything unless you change the culture. Your decision, even if you’re giving the manager discretion, is what kind of culture do you want to be supporting there? What kind of values do you want to be supporting? Are they more empathetic? Are they more to the necessity of operation? Are they more to whether or not you like the person? What values do you want to support? The policy that you write will support or should support the culture that you want to replicate.

It sounds simple and more simplistic, but it’s not simple.

It’s simpler than people think. If people feel that often what they have to do is write up a whole bunch of policies because people need rules. When they say, “I need a policy. What are the rules that I should give people?” That’s not the right approach because that doesn’t address the culture or the strategy. The better approach to say, “How do I want this organization to work? Let me describe that in writing. How do I want people to feel? How do I want them to act?” If you were to say to everybody, “I think we should all clean our workspace at the end of the day,” and everyone went, “Good,” and they do it, you don’t have an issue. You don’t have to spend your time writing up a policy or a standard. It’s only once you’ve described the vision that you want to see and people come back and say, “I don’t know how I can do that. I don’t know how that will work. I don’t understand what’s on the left and what’s on the right.” In that case, you need to write a policy to clarify what it is you’re talking about. Simply start by telling people what you’d like to see. Set your expectations. It’s no different.

It sounds like that’s aligned with what you are writing in terms of policy or to the vision, and reminding and helping people see the connection between the two.

That is the tightest connection there should be. The policy should support the vision and the values that you’re putting forward. That’s usually the why. I should mention this, on a number of times, people say to me, “The ministry funds this. The ministry insists that we have a policy on X.” In those cases, the word policy is being used loosely in the legislation. If you have a document called procedure on X or you have written down what you’re going to do with X, it doesn’t have to be in a document called policy on X. Nobody who comes and inspects is ever going to give you a slap on the hand for not putting the word policy on the top of the document. Especially if you’re a small organization, don’t worry about the formality of the policy document. Worry about writing something that everybody can understand and work with.

It seems like it’s easy to go to OfficeMax or Staples and pick up boilerplates and fill in the spaces and then, “I got something on paper to be compliant.”

The problem with that is that it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. You would never buy a one-size-fits-all suit.

That would be a challenge considering that.

TLC 9 | Writing Rules

Writing Rules: The goal of a policy is to help the business function properly, to help people work properly. A poorly written policy is one that doesn’t move you in that direction.


What I guess is from my concern is if those policies that you get from that policy bank have that authoritarian tone of voice, “Employees must do this. Employees must always do this. No exceptions.” That’s the way you come across. A woman named Suzanne once came to me and said, “Before I apply for a job, I asked to see the organization’s policies because I want to hear how they talk to their employees.” If I don’t like the way they talk, if I don’t think they talk respectfully to their employees, I don’t work there.

That means that those boilerplate policies that you bring in, they reflect on your organization, whether you think they do or not. Everybody wears that if you have policies that sound like that. Good employees, as you know, are hard to find. Somebody who does their due diligence like that, who wants to see an organization’s policies to understand the organization better, that’s exactly the kind of person you would want. If your organization, if the policies and the written stuff comes across with this parental or authoritarian tone of voice, which is outdated, that will work against you.

How many places I go, how many people I deal with where often you hear that, “Our policy is.” It becomes a scapegoat sometimes either for poor service or for poor behavior. At the same time, when pressing upon it, it’s like, “Show me where,” and then it’s like, “It’s not there.” It’s a catch-all for everything.

You have a tension between the people that want all the details are written down, which would take you hours and an enormous amount of process and energy, not to mention the upkeep every time you made a change. The people that would like things to be fluid, tell them the goal, the purpose, recommend the procedure and let them go and do work and they do their job. Yes, you will always have this tension. It says something if every single thing has to be written down in an organization. There’s a problem with the way that the organization runs. It cannot sustain that.

What is it that you do that you see people come to you and say, “Lewis, we want a change?” What changes on how we say things in an organization? How do you approach it with organizations?

I normally run workshops and within a few hours, what we cover, we’ll look at what’s the purpose of writing a policy, and when do I need to write a policy? When I do write it, how can I put it? How can I word it so that people won’t get their backup? If I can give you a real human example of that. I was in a work-sharing hoteling type space where different people come in and I am giving this talk. The director came over to me after and says, “There’s one person who sits in the corner and whenever he’s on a conference call, he’s loud. I guess we need the policy to have him not talk so loud.” There’s a knee jerk reaction where what you have is a human problem. That is not a policy issue.

There may or may not be a justification for asking him to be quiet. Every organization has to make this decision, how widespread is the problem? How much are people pushing back against the solution or against that? You have to decide that in every case, but a lot of people have a knee jerk reaction that policy will solve their problems. I think we saw the same thing when cannabis became legal in Canada, a number of states where people said, “I don’t want people to show up to work stoned. I need a policy.” As if somehow the policy is going to solve all these problems, but when in fact, most organizations already have policies about people showing up to work when intoxicated or unable to perform for whatever reason. They have policies about people who are charged with keeping illegal substances, contraband or something. Every time something new comes up, we don’t need a policy to resolve it. That’s what I work with people through a workshop. We look at when do you need the policy? What is it worth your time to do that? How can we word it so that you’re likely to get as much buy-in as possible all the way through?

What the situation would be if I see someone who goes take your workshop? What is the before and after picture? It would be interesting to do a survey of the workplace to see how’s it functioning, how are people responding to the improvement or changes, and what’s the atmosphere culture in that workplace?

The culture is so much better. People stop seeing each other as enforcers. They stop seeing who’s ever writing the policy as the heavy and start seeing them as a business partner.

When people stop seeing each other as enforcers, they start seeing who’s writing the policy as a business partner. Click To Tweet

Is that some of the feedback that you’ve received?

Absolutely. I had one for a major government organization where they told me that the policy writers were getting Thank You notes from the client saying, “Thank you for helping us get our thoughts together and put our policy in a way that we wouldn’t have done it on our own.” It’s because they’ve changed the dynamic from the parent-child, which is the way most of us started as a policy. I have to write rules and to an adult-adult one, which is more of a teamwork dynamic. It’s reflected in the way work proceeds after that.

That’s wonderful news. First of all, it is great for a policy writer to get a thank you note. They must have that posted somewhere in their office or their cubicle. You bring up something that’s key and understanding how we relate with one another. If we take a look at it from a person-to-person, how would do you want to be treated? How would it feel for you to hear this type of information? Knowing the people around you, what’s going to best bring out the best in other people that allows for everyone to feel like they belong. They feel that they can contribute and that they’re treated with some level of respect and understanding

People are often afraid that the language won’t be strong enough. You had mentioned before that there are some people that need to be told. The epitome of policies, the best wording I always tell people is the statement, “Office hours are 9:00 to 5:00.” That’s a simple statement of the way you do things. There’s no threat. It’s not about me doing it to you. We’re not talking mandatory and optional. We’re not talking about that stuff. We’re describing the way we want things to be. Office hours are from 9:00 to 5:00. That’s our policy. That’s an adult-adult dynamic

That sounds simple, Lewis. Yet, it sounds like you have a lot of opportunities out there to change the way organizations function and how they communicate internally and externally as well. As you read this episode, I encourage you whether you’re working in a large organization or a small, medium-sized organization. How are you speaking to your people? What is the level of communication that’s taking place? Where are some ways in which could be improved? You’ve learned from Lewis, who is an expert in this field. We’ll have information posted on our website in terms of a follow-up from this episode. Lewis, thank you. We value your input. Also, it’s great to see you as given the fact that as young as you are, you’ve got lots of things to do in school. It’s wonderful having you here. Thank you again. Take care.

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