how do I backtrack on a stupid rule I put in place for employees?

A reader writes:

I read an article where you talked about stupid rules that management makes in order to address an issue. I’m actually a new manager myself as of April of this year. I have found that I am guilty of creating at least one new “stupid rule” that I know my employees hate. After consideration and after reading the article, I realize that my error was not addressing the guilty employees directly instead of creating a new blanket policy.

The situation was this: My employees take breaks and lunches at their desk. This leads to a lot of discussion throughout the day. I manage a call center, so a lot of discussion not on calls can be disruptive to others, especially when you’re dealing with a couple of employees who tend to be loud and obnoxious. So to create a more peaceful environment, I set forth the rule that no one can take breaks and lunches at their desks any longer. They hate this rule because there is no cell reception in the break room or bathrooms and our conference room stays very cold. I tried to explain the reasoning, but of course employees don’t tend to see the logic behind any management decision. At least not my group. I worked among them for 6 years before being offered the position, so I can probably tell you word for word what was discussed afterwards.

In hindsight, I feel that maybe this rule was too extreme, and perhaps I should’ve just let everyone know to be mindful of the fact that others are trying to conduct business around them.

My question is, how do I approach removing this rule without losing the respect of the employees?

Well, first, good for you for reconsidering this instead of digging in and defending your stance!

One of the best things you can do if you want the respect of your employees is to admit when you’re wrong. Think about your experience with your own bosses — who did you respect more, the ones who were open-minded and could admit mistakes, or the ones who refused to acknowledge that they might occasionally get it wrong?

In fact, managers who won’t admit mistakes actually undermine their own authority, because they come across as insecure about their authority. When you’re secure in your position and your authority, you feel perfectly comfortable acknowledging mistakes and correcting your course. When you’re not very secure in it, that’s when you feel like you have to defend it at all costs, and it leads to all kinds of bad things, like heavy-handedness with policies. (This is also true in relationships! Admit when you’re wrong, people. At least consider the possibility that you might be. You will become much more attractive to your partner or prospective partners.)

Here’s what to say to your employees:  “You know, in an attempt to resolve one problem, I created another. I was trying to address the noise problem, but this isn’t the right solution. Let’s talk about what could work better to fix the noise issue, while still letting people have somewhere to eat lunch and take their breaks.”  Then talk to them and come up with a better solution … which may indeed just be setting the clear expectation that people not make a lot of noise in areas where others are working, and then dealing with people individually if they don’t abide by that.

Also, use this experience to think about how you want to handle managerial edicts in general. Set out some principles for yourself for the future — for instance, decide that you won’t come up with rules for the group when simply talking to a few people would solve the problem … and before you implement any new policy, think about what the downsides of it will be, and decide if they’re reasonable.

Also, don’t see your role as being to play cop with your employees. Yes, you have to set standards and ensure things are functioning well, but you’re not there to police people. If you find that you have to, then you either have a performance problem on your staff that you need to address … or, if it’s widespread, you’d want to look at larger cultural/structural problems in your set-up. But start by assuming you’re managing reasonable adults who should be treated that way.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. jmkenrick*

    I think Alison’s answer is totally on point, but just want to comment and say that I think it’s great you’re able to reconsider your decisions when they might have been wrong. That can be such a difficult thing to do, especially when people are watching.

    1. jmkenrick*

      Also, this is another answer for Alison’s future book: “How Managing is like Dating: Lessons from inside the Chocolate Teapot Factory.”

  2. fposte*

    Sometimes I just say “We’re running into problem X. Let’s try instituting this policy for a while to see if it solves it.” That way it’s not writing a new commandment, it’s just setting a procedure to solve a problem, and if it doesn’t achieve what we want then it’s no big deal to change it again, and people will often have been noting weaknesses or possible improvements as you go.

    1. Trysta*

      That’s a great idea! I’ll keep that in mind if I have to create any new policies in the future.

    2. Candice*

      I agree this can be a tactic to use in some instances, but be careful not to lean on this too much as it will appear that you are wishy-washy and don’t like to make firm decisions. Create the policy only after strongly weighing the pros, cons, potential backfire and potential upsides. If there’s a good reason to create it after weighing all the options, it shouldn’t need a trial run.

      1. fposte*

        It’s definitely situational, I agree; there are undoubtedly workplaces that are more hierarchical, and you don’t want to keep changing stuff. But I’m not meaning a “trial run,” I’m meaning that you’re acknowledging that you can’t see all the drawbacks of a new direction before embarking on it (which you can’t), that not everything is worth engraving a policy in stone, and that changing work patterns can make a formerly effective procedure ineffective. So rather than intoning “From this day forth, only manager-level personnel shall touch the supply-closet key,” you say “Hey, since Lisa’s using it most often anyway these days, let’s just give her custody of the supply closet key and see if that solves our problem.” Most of the time it’s not about getting people to behave properly, it’s about figuring out ways people can do their work without bugging one another, which is an ongoing process.

        1. Trysta*

          You’re certainly right about the “people can do their work without bugging one another” part. That is a huge issue here. Some people get bugged by actual issues and some people just complain about the tiniest details. I’m finally learning to weed out what is worth addressing and what is not. Thanks to you guys for the additional advice. :) One can never get too much good advice.

  3. Jamie*

    I would absolutely address the fact that it isn’t working. The worst thing you could do is to just stop policing the rule without lifting it.

    This will make them see you as one of those managers who has a rule du jour and they don’t have to pay particular attention to what you say…because you’ll forget about it. Those managers find it impossible to manage, even when they want to.

    You tried something, it didn’t work, so just tell them that. Honesty and flexibility are two great traits in any manager.

    1. Trysta*

      I know what you mean about the not enforcing. We did have a manager before that would do that at least twice a year. We always knew that if we waited about a week, it would no longer be noticed anymore.

  4. Trysta*

    Hi guys! It’s me! New Manager that created the stupid rule.

    Thanks so much for the feedback and that includes the comments! I really appreciate it and it helped quite a bit. I’m going to address it with the staff tomorrow morning. Wish me luck! :)

    1. Candice*

      I think it’s just wonderful that you’re able to admit that the decision might not have been the best. I’d really respect a manager who had the ability and confidence to note that they made a call that wasn’t the best and with a willingness to listen to other options. KUDOS

      1. Trysta*

        Thanks Candice. I’m still a work in progress but I’ll get there.

        You were absolutely right The Other Dawn. :)

  5. Anonymous*

    I actually don’t think this is a bad rule. I worked in a call center in college, and it always drove me nuts when the loud jerks decided to take their break right next to me while I was trying to deal with a frustrated client. If there is a designated place where people can go, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be used (cell phone service is not a right workers have). And I don’t think that people should be on their cell phones in an open air environment distracting others from doing their work. I’d maybe adjust the rule that states the reasoning behind it, and maybe tell people they’re welcome to eat at their desks, but they may not carry on conversations or take personal phone calls on the floor during work hours.

    1. Jennifer*

      “And I don’t think that people should be on their cell phones in an open air environment distracting others from doing their work.”

      So many people use their cell phones for texting and various internet activities versus phone calls these days. I would guess that is how they are using them, especially because they are call center employees. I use the phone all day for my job. I NEVER make phone calls when a text will do in my personal life – I bet call center employees are the same.

      1. Jamie*

        That’s what I was thinking. Texting or checking email.

        I would think people who work in a call center know how annoying the chatter is, so would be respectful of others. At least in theory, anyway.

    2. Trysta*

      They’re already not allowed to make personal phone calls on their cell phones or work phones in the department. They use them for stuff like emails and Facebook since they’re not allowed to do that on work computers. I did address the issue just today and told them that although I’m removing the rule, they still need to be mindful of others working around them. If there are any issues now I’ll just deal with that person directly.

      1. Long Time Admin*

        “If there are any issues now I’ll just deal with that person directly.”

        YES!! THAT! At my company, no one will deal with just the problem person. Instead, they make blanket rules for everyone. It doesn’t do anything good for morale, and the problems just continue because the offender always thinks it’s someone else’s fault.

        You’re going to be a good manager.

        1. Jamie*

          “YES!! THAT! At my company, no one will deal with just the problem person. Instead, they make blanket rules for everyone.”

          Or chastise everyone, responsible or not. Why would I ever get an email complaining about how lazy we are because no one replaced the paper towels in the men’s room. I’ve never been in there, pretty sure it wasn’t me who used the last of them.

          Good managers know that ‘all users’ emails should be rare and used with discretion.

          1. Trysta*

            That has always been the case with previous managers too so I kind of thought that was the way to go. Now I know better.

  6. CatB (Europe)*

    In my experience, admitting a mistake was never a mistake. I used to fix the situation by calling in my subordinates’ reasoning and input: “I wanted to obtain +X and instead got -Y (and, if needed, I would also paint the whole image for them to understand why +X was important). Obviously, my reasoning was flawed somewhere. How can we achieve +X together?”

    I can’t recall even one circumstance when this approach failed me. I can recall many times when I noticed, beyond +X, an improvement in team morale, discipline or respect towards me.

    Then again, it’s a matter of personal style. Not everybody gets results that way.

    1. Trysta*

      I already addressed it and it already feels as if a tiny weight has been lifted. I knew people were unhappy with it. I had no idea just how much though. It went well and only the future will tell if it hurt me in their eyes or if it helped.

      1. fposte*

        I would bet it’s helping you. You sound really clear-headed and reasonable here, and I suspect you do there as well.

  7. Protest&Hyperbole*

    “Start by assuming you’re managing reasonable adults who should be treated that way.”

    Real talk. I have shouted this in my head at many a manager.

  8. anon-2*

    It looks like the OP wants to reverse him/herself on a bad policy move — but does not wish to appear wishy-washy or “eat humble pie” and admit that a mistake was made.

    Sometimes you have to do that. You don’t want to do it every day, but once in awhile, you have to admit you’re fallible, because humans are fallible.

    There was a disturbing line by the OP –

    “I tried to explain the reasoning, but of course employees don’t tend to see the logic behind any management decision. At least not my group”

    That’s revealing on the part of the OP, although I think the revelation here is not what the OP thinks.

    I guess the number one question is — maybe this experience will teach three things —

    – 1) Think about ALL consequences of a decision affecting employees. Not just the desired end result.

    – 2) Think about an alternative. Why is there no cell communication in the break room? Can the break room be moved, so people can run (and relax) more efficiently?

    – 3) Perhaps consulting with a few employees on things like this before imposing a rule that won’t work might be a better way to go. You might come up with an alternative plan, and, you can avoid the dessert called “humble pie.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I totally agree about ““I tried to explain the reasoning, but of course employees don’t tend to see the logic behind any management decision.” OP, be careful not to see yourself on one side of the line and employees on the other — they’ll pick up on that and it’ll impact the way you handle things, and it’ll make your job harder. Assume you’re all on the same team. One that you’re leading, but the same team.

      1. anon-2*

        Amen, Allison. A good manager works with his or her people as a team leader — not as an adversary. Every company that I have worked in, in my 40 year career, where it was the boss vs. the people, had outrageously high turnover. No one was happy, and NO ONE respected management.

        I wound up in a place where managers LED, not BOSSED, and after I had the manager call me aside and let me know that, I had no problem adjusting to it. I also never went into a situation again where managers weren’t leaders of the group.

        And that’s the way it should be. Even in a call center. If one puts herself in that mindset, it’s relatively easy to back off of a rule like that, and then laugh at yourself over it (and ask your team to laugh WITH you.)

    2. Trysta*

      It absolutely did teach two of the three. It’s impossible to move the break room, but I completely understand you on the other two.

      1. Vicki*

        Can you talk to Facilities and find a way to _get_ cell coverage in the breakroom? You don;t have to move the breakroom. Just add the right hardware.

        1. Trysta*

          Our company is currently on a hiring freeze and we haven’t had raises in 4 years. They also stopped providing coffee and paper towels in the break room. I’m afraid that they’ll just say it’s not in the budget to make those kinds of changes. It wouldn’t hurt to ask I suppose, but with everything as it is right now the least of their concerns is cell phone coverage. :(

          1. Jamie*

            No raises in four years and coffee and paper towels are cut?

            I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a very nervous and possibly disgruntled staff even without the cell phone issue.

            You have to manage properly, for sure, and hold people to the same high standards but in this environment I would try really hard to make sure they knew I was trying to keep it as pleasant as possible for them (within my power.)

            People know what no raises in over four years means, and they really know what it means when even coffee is off the table. I would expect those on your staff who are paying attention may be putting their own feelers out.

            I would.

            1. Trysta*

              Thanks Jamie. I definitely have to find the balance between keeping folks efficient without being heavy handed in order to maintain morale. Too much leeway and work will slip, too little and morale will slip which could also affect the work. Interesting that the last sentence just occurred to me as I was typing. I hadn’t considered how low morale could also effect work, but I guess it really could. Thanks guys. Another revelation!

          2. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Trysta, in that case, do not suggest the increased cell phone coverage to management, or you’ll look out of touch with the business realities.

  9. Vicki*

    Two things I really liked seeing in the comments here:

    1) AAM: ” Let’s talk about what could work better to fix the noise issue, while still letting people have somewhere to eat lunch and take their breaks.” Then talk to them and come up with a better solution …”

    2) anon-2″ “I wound up in a place where managers LED, not BOSSED)

    Together, these are so critical. Work _with_ your people. No one likes a Command and Control situation (except, perhaps, the person who believes himself to be in command.)

    1. Trysta*

      I’m totally with you Vicki and I’m keeping that in mind for the future. I was more of a command presence in the beginning. I was chosen over someone with more seniority so I felt that I really had a lot to prove so that upper mgmt would not regret that decision. I came out full force and really didn’t reconsider that thinking until this past month or so. I had training on the management programs and such but had no training on the dealing with the people portion of it so I’m having to learn as I go. I do have contact with the previous manager also, but I don’t want to bother her and she was the one who said the blanket ruling would be best so I don’t know if that is the best place to get more advice.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Not to self-promote, but there’s a chapter in my book about how to exercise authority correctly — getting the balance right so that you’re neither a tyrant nor a wimp. It might help.

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