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Crossing Meaningless Boundaries: Not All Rules Are Created Equal

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I'm at the airport, nearly alone. I'm between the last group of flights out and the next one, so I've landed in the calm between: No airplanes grace the gates, no harried passengers bump each other in line, no agents scramble to complete boarding processes on time. If it weren't for a few fast food concession workers and six or eight people peppered over a hundred chairs, the airport might as well be closed.

I could be bored. I could be hard at work on my laptop. But I'm neither. Instead, I'm enthralled, watching an interaction play out between a child and his parents, and pondering its implications to the workplace and to society in general.

What do the antics of a young family stuck at the airport have to do with our economic and social futures?

Let's start with what happened: The parents decided to let their child run around a bit, presumably to burn off some energy. What first captured my attention was the unbridled joy of a kid set free. The place was big and empty, and the kid was small, so the net effect was to suddenly liberate this young boy to do whatever he wished. He ran, he jumped, he peered under empty seats, and he generally enjoyed himself in what I must admit was an adorable way. Spirits were light, and excitement was in the air.

That is, until the unthinkable occurred.

Now don't worry -- nobody got hurt, and nothing bad happened. That was my assessment, anyway, but in light of the parents' reactions, I may have been wrong. The child, in all his youthful exuberance and naiveté, did a terrible thing: He ran under one of those "tensa-barrier" ropes -- you know, the ones used in airports, theaters, and crowded places to organize people into lines. And this kid did it with impunity. He shot right under without giving it a second thought -- he didn't even duck! And he continued his jubilation on the other side, at least for a few milliseconds, until his parents came down on him as if he were pointing a loaded pistol at a policeman.

The barrier in question, I should explain, was intended to direct passengers in and out of the boarding doorway. Had it been unlocked, had there been passengers lined up, or had there been an airplane nearby, it might have been fair to say it was "in use." But nobody was congregating, no flight was waiting, and the door at the gate was closed and locked. At the moment, this particular barricade defined a boundary between unused airport space, and more unused airport space: an empty line to nowhere, populated by nobody.

Now, as I'm watching the parents direct the kid in no uncertain terms to "get back over here," I'm fascinated by their swift and decisive action in enforcing what can only be called an arbitrary boundary. I'm also a little amazed by the fact that, as the situation plays out and the kid refuses to return voluntarily, both parents seem unwilling to cross the boundary themselves.

I know the argument: If they let him cross the boundary now, he'll learn that it's OK to cross it whenever he wants. If they cross it themselves, he'll learn the same lesson. Only by enforcing the rules consistently, and role modeling compliance themselves, can the parents ensure that in the future he'll abide by whatever boundaries are set up.

That's precisely what has me thinking about our workplaces, and by extension, our futures.

You see, if I'm a leader or manager, and I let an employee violate a boundary now, I teach my employees that they can again violate it in the future. And if I don't comply with the boundary myself, my employees will learn the same lesson through my example. Only by enforcing the rules consistently, and role-modeling compliance myself, can I ensure that my employees will abide by whatever boundaries are set up. The story for leaders and managers is the same as the story for parents.

I know that. I agree with that. I teach that. For important boundaries -- rules about not smoking in the flammable chemical storage room, about treating people with respect, about handling confidential material correctly, leaders and managers must walk the talk. They must be diligent in both role-modeling and enforcing compliance. Otherwise, bad things happen.

But what about less important, more arbitrary boundaries? What about bureaucratic policies, time-wasters, and distracters? What of rules requiring four signatures to spend $5 on office supplies? What about -- in short -- barriers defining lines to nowhere? How do we differentiate between rules that must be followed and rules that are, well, no longer appropriate? More importantly, how do we teach the entire workforce to do so?

Here's my problem, and it's one for both leaders in the workplace and parents in the airport: We need rules. And yet, we don't want to teach people to follow every rule and obey every rule, regulation, and boundary condition regardless of who set it out or how appropriate it is.

Do we?

Do we want employees who, when told by a corrupt manager to doctor the records and perjure the company, will do so without raising an objection?

Do we want children who, when told by an authoritative stranger that they had better get in the car right now, will do so without making waves?

Do we want a nation of people who, when faced with an important and difficult decision -- one involving multiple, complex considerations -- will prioritize sound bites of advice found on Facebook ahead of their own cognitive abilities?

I don't. I want employees who, in the face of complexity, continue to strive to achieve useful goals rather than stopping all progress and waiting for someone else to provide the answer. I want children who, when presented with unusual direction from an unrecognized authority figure, ask questions rather than blindly complying. And I want a nation of people who, in response to the challenges faced by our society, bring to bear their substantial intelligence rather than assigning blame and retreating into excessive, mind-numbing entertainment.

This implies some difficult decision-making, and some hard work, on all of our parts. It requires those parents to decide at what age it's time to stop saying "we always obey these barriers, no matter what" and start talking about the purpose of the ropes, and when they do and don't matter. It requires leaders and managers to decide which rules and guidelines must stand, and which should be questioned. It requires all of us to think a little harder, spend a little more time questioning, and take a little more risk.

Of course, it would be a lot easier to raise a nation of children, adults, and employees who will simply line up, physically and metaphorically. It would be much, much more convenient if people would sit down and shut up when they're told to do so. But given the problems we face today -- and given the fact that our economic and social success increasingly hinges on innovation and development -- I don't think the easier path leads where we wish to go.

I think, as I sit here in the airport, that it's going to fall to all of us to take the more difficult road. Maybe I'll start by writing this article. Maybe a few parents will start by crossing a completely arbitrary line, while explaining why. Maybe a few managers will start by asking their employees which rules don't make sense, and then helping to change them.

How might you start?

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