Rules Rulz, Fools

Matt Casey

Written by Matt Casey. Co-founder of DoThings. Author of The Management Delusion and We Need to Talk About Scrum.

November 01, 2020

Politicians are often described as leaders. Boris Johnson is currently the Prime Minister, so some people probably assume this means he is our leader. But he isn’t. Politicians don’t lead the people. Certainly not in 2020, and probably not ever. Politicians just do the things that the majority of people want them to do. If they don’t do that, they don’t get to keep their job. That isn’t leading.

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin

Politicians are really just figureheads for popular opinions. They each pick an opinion to pretend to have, and if it’s an opinion held by the majority of the voting population, they get rewarded with a fancy title, a mediocre salary, and invitations to the Epstein sex island. Meanwhile, it’s the civil servants who will be doing the actual work necessary to influence the behaviour of the population. I have a friend who is a civil servant, and for several months she led a program that ensured the UK had enough bassoon players. At first I scoffed at this seemingly pointless job, but as it turns out, the UKs orchestras are an extremely valuable export, and in order to maintain them we need to ensure that enough people across the country can play each instrument to a high standard. Not enough children were taking up the bassoon, so a valuable UK export was at risk. As a management activity goes, this is about as challenging as it gets. Imagine if in order for you to have enough staff for your business, you had to somehow convince random children to take up playing the bassoon about 16 years in advance.

The reason the country works at all is that politicians don’t get directly involved in managing the behaviours of the population. But Covid has changed that. All of a sudden, politicians are setting us rules we are immediately expected to follow without question. And they’re making a total mess of it, because they don’t understand how behavioural change works. They clearly believe what so many people mistakenly believe - that you can just tell people to do things, and that they will do them.

They believe you can just tell a kid to play the bassoon.

I totally understand why people think this is true. It really should be true, right? If you’re in charge, and you tell people to do things, they should obviously just do those things. If you tell people to behave a certain way, they should all just behave that certain way. That should be true. That should be how it is.

But that isn’t how it is. Thinking that controlling behaviour works that way is like thinking that to play the guitar you just need to twang those strings a bit. I know to the untrained eye that looks like all a guitar player is doing, but there’s way more to it than that.

In case you don’t believe me, consider this: why do managers exist? If it was possible to just tell people to behave a certain way and be able to expect them to actually do it, surely the illuminati business owners wouldn’t bother with managers at all. They’d just tell all the employees to work really really hard and make them lots more money. What would be the point of managers, management training, management frameworks, HR policies, feedback models, coaching, performance management, performance reviews? Why would any of that exist? It wouldn’t. It only exists because telling people what to do and how to behave doesn’t work. It has never worked. It will never work. It should work, but it doesn’t.

Since the very start of the Covid crisis our government has acted like a group of naive and inexperienced managers. They have decided the ways they want people to behave, then told us to behave that way, and expected that to be enough. The fact so many people have been surprised that this hasn’t worked is bewildering to me.

The rule of six came into effect a few weeks ago, meaning we were no longer permitted to gather in groups of more than six people. Yet the park near my house didn’t change in the slightest. Same basketball games, same big group picnics, same groups of dog walkers hanging out chatting. Some friends of mine who run a pub told me that it was impossible to make people follow the rule. They would break up groups, but as soon as they turned their back the groups would reform. The government imposed a rule that very few people wanted to follow, and left the policing of that rule to people with absolutely no authority to enforce it. Again, it’s bewildering to me that people expected these rules to be followed.

Shortly after we were told to wear face masks in coffee shops, I noticed this little dance play out in the doomed Pret near my apartment.

  1. Person walks into coffee shop wearing a mask
  2. Person looks around the coffee shop and sees very few other people wearing a mask
  3. Person takes off mask

We conform to the social behaviour of others far more strongly than we conform to the rules. So when someone walks into a coffee shop, the moment they see that the majority of people aren’t complying with the rule, they usually decide not to comply with the rule either, despite having been perfectly willing to comply with it moments before. This goes to show you the real reason we comply with rules. We put the mask on because we are worried about what other people will think if we don’t wear it, not because Boris told us to. Not because it’s a rule. The moment we see that nobody else is following the rule, we stop following it.

Several years ago, I was stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway. We hadn’t moved an inch for some time. There was an exit about a mile ahead of me, and the hard shoulder was completely empty. For 10 minutes we all remained in our cars, following the rules. Then someone decided they’d had enough, pulled out of the queue, and began to drive down the hard shoulder so they could reach the exit. A few seconds passed. Then someone else did it too. They were quickly followed by someone else, and then all of a sudden everyone was doing it. It was a free-for-all. From that moment on, driving on that hard shoulder was a perfectly acceptable thing for us all to do, even though just seconds before we were all following the rule and not doing it. We knew there was a rule against doing it, and we were willing to follow that rule for as long as everyone else followed it. But the moment other people started to break the rule, we were no longer willing to adhere to it ourselves. Rules on their own are an incredibly weak force that can be completely overpowered the moment a few people decide to ignore them. Like gravity, they’re the weakest of all the forces.

This is why the Covid rules aren’t working. Even if you convince 90% of people to follow the rules initially, the 10% you haven’t convinced will break them, then another 10% will think “well I’m not following them if they don’t follow them”. Then another 10% will see that 20% of people aren’t following them, and this will be their breaking point. Then the people with a breaking point of 30% will follow, then 40%, then 50%. Eventually you’ll just be left with the diehard rule followers, and there aren’t enough of them to make any real difference to anything.

The ways we’re seeing people respond to the endless new Covid rules could have been predicted by any reasonably experienced or skilled manager. Telling us what to do was never going to work, because telling people what to do has never worked. The only way you can make someone do something consistently is to make them actually want to do it. You have to find a balance between the ideal things you want to happen and the things that will realistically happen. Telling people to do exactly what you want them to do when you know full well they won’t do it is a completely pointless exercise.

You can’t just tell someone to play the bassoon. You have to make them want to.

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