Courage in the Face of Nonsense: Leading in the Workplace

Courage in the Face of Nonsense: Leading in the Workplace
Leaders must draw the line between using rules in an attempt to drive compliant behavior and engaging employees in spirit-based discussions on ways to ensure that the right actions are taken.

Who would have thought that product labeling could provide such humor? We have all seen warning labels cautioning against using lawn mowers to trim hedges, hot coffee cups informing the customer that the coffee is indeed hot, plastic fruit labeled as inedible, or other examples of this silliness that has become the stuff of daily comics and snickering web postings. What hap- pens, however, when this nonsense moves into the workplace? Instead of an enliv- ened, productive workplace, frustration rules. Reduced to simply following ridged rules and protocols, workers become annoyed, discouraged, and unfulfilled. It’s time for leaders to lead and not just manage misdirected bureaucracies. Why So Much Nonsense?

In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip Howard speaks to public sector over-regulation that has resulted in slowing, if not prohibiting, sensible projects and escalating costs at little or no public value.1 Filled with so many examples of dysfunctional behavior, Howard acknowledges the increased regulations were meant to reduce risk and protect society, but more and more a legalistic mindset takes precedence over common sense. He advocates for taking personal responsibility for bringing common sense back into our lives. Public leaders must cut through the nonsense that inhibits real progress. Clearing “decades of legal underbrush” while holding on to the timeless principles of good governance are among the actions he recommends.

When the forces of accelerated change and increased complexity are added to Howard’s current-state examination, misguided, out-of-date, and often myopic rules and processes negatively impact progress at an exponential rate. With so many regulations, the important aspects of good social advancement often are lost. The public begins to ignore and discard the countless warnings and product instructions. Good people are dissuaded from stepping forward with big ideas and bold projects.

Instead of concentrating on the height of toi- let seats, build more public restrooms. Instead of continuing defense programs unwanted by mili- tary leaders, fund worthwhile defense projects. As opposed to the waste found in societal safety-net programs, such as coastal insurance, food support, disability provisions, and worker income, stream- line and allow for sensible tailoring. Certainly there are inspiring examples where courageous leaders are making a difference in challenging non- sense in the public sector. Bravo! More leadership is needed, however.

Workplace Impact

Society has in many ways become over-cautious, over-regulated, and subsequently creators of non- sense. The cost of over-regulation of products and processes has stifled progress and even hindered creative solutions to the very problems people are attempting to address. Unfortunately, this phenom- enon has crept into the workplace.

Management and human resources professionals are quick to put forth their share of questionable rules — dress codes, food consumption, office-supply usage, absenteeism, work patterns, performance modifications, etc. Rules flourish. These rules were not made in a vacuum. Problems erupted, but too often the tendency is to create a rules-based culture, and as with over-regulation in the public sector, an unintentional result is an exasperated, disheart- ened human element. The human spirit becomes inhibited. Instead of engaged, enlivened people, the dumb beat of compliance has people shuffling around like deadened spirits—like zombies.

Indeed, there is money to be made commentating on the absurdities found in the workplace. Scott Adams created the comic Dilbert in 1989. The many negative aspects of the corporate environ- ment have provided plentiful fodder throughout the years for an expanding public following. His commentary concerning dysfunctional workplace antics has spread to more than 65 countries and 2,000 newspapers. Forbes magazine routinely runs articles such as “Five Stupid Rules That Drive Great Employees Away” and online magazines such as Career News post “10 Crazy Workplace Rules You Won’t Believe.” Sitcoms such as The Office, Parks and Recreation, and The Simpsons have nailed office absurdity. Often ridiculed are dress-code rules, personal-behavior mandates, excessive red tape, expense report requirements, travel policies, security requirements, exhaustive approval steps, petty permission requirements, unread report generation, lunchroom and eating policies, work romance rules, away-from-work expectations, and even rules for celebrations.

Furthermore, the language emanating from many human resources departments is strange in itself, ripe for mockery. Burdened with legalistic wording, programed idiomatic expressions, and confusing watchwords, much of this communication does not help people accomplish their core work.

Knowing that we are not alone in seeing work- place nonsense can have therapeutic effects, even supply a laugh or two. Without the courage to confront this situation, however, cynicism can take root. The choice is to be a bystander and move to victimhood or to help navigate the workplace back into sensible territory. If we are to hold leadership accountable for this change, it might be best to examine how the situation got off course.

Generally, the cause for this nonsense is two- fold. Reduction of risk is the foremost cause. Legal actions prompt rule generation in order to limit future exposure. The rules or procedures usually are aimed at preventing rare occurrences, irresponsible actions. Blasting the organization with such rules, alerts, or procedures sends an inadvertent message that this behavior is widespread, and the work- force as a whole is unable to use common sense. Although legal actions can be expensive and derail an enterprise, they need to be addressed. The solu- tions must consider the whole system, the cultural impact, and the messaging to the commonsense people (the vast majority of workforce).

Additionally, the nonsense emanates from over- reaction to real issues, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, lack of civility, performance outages, and corruption. Emerging social issues arise and must be addressed — sexual identity, pet partners, sensitivity to perfumes, religious practices, handicap designations, workplace stress, etc. The list grows, and society evolves. These issues call for attention. Real problems do erupt; workplaces do need to change. Chasing them solely with rules, however, only dampens an already desensitized workforce.

In both cases, it is appropriate to look at lead- ers for solutions, but by taking a narrow approach creating new Band-Aid rules on gaping behavioral wounds, unintended consequences infect the sys- tem at large. Turning to a rules-based culture to solve big issues is contradictory to systems-thinking methodology. Limiting risk and problem solving by way of mandating behavior with out-of-date rules, blind personnel practices, and rigid policies reduces leaders to bureaucratic compliance officers. The result is a march away from taking responsibility—a march away from leadership.

Moving Forward

Certainly there are perils in removing nonsense from the workplace. Substituting “Use your good judgment” for over-scripted policies can be a shock. To a degree, people are now accustomed to being treated as slow-thinking children. Moving a culture to embody great responsibility, more creativity, and amplification of common sense will be challenging. The real and pressing problems and risks will still be present, a few individuals’ behaviors will be unacceptable, and a litigious background will not disappear. If, however, the workplace requires an engaged, enlivened, and creative workforce to be effective, then attending to spirit is essential. Give people the responsibility to act within agreed-upon principles that are designed to shape the desired culture. Give up on controlling the workforce using do’s and don’ts; the results of that approach are ineffective anyway.

Determining what is reasonable behavior is different than determining if someone followed the rules. Flirtation, co-worker romance, jokes, language, personal appearance, personality conflicts, work habits, and attitude are among the difficult subjects to corner with enough rules and regulations. Certainly in the extreme, dysfunctional behavior can have a no-tolerance response, but in the shades of gray, the opportunity is to shape a desired culture with discussion, exploration, and learnings. What are the cultural principles behind the sought-after behaviors? Establish these principles and then help individuals become aware of their associated mindsets. Sit down and have a spirit-to-spirit dialog, as opposed to a parent- to-child one-way conversation. It takes conscious, awake, and self-directed people for organizational effectiveness to grow.

Adherence to filling out silly, purposeless forms and nonvalue-added paperwork is discouraging. Rigid work rules can fly in the face of exclaimed diversity pronouncements. Layers of approval and permission requests can send a low-value message. Again, the opportunity is to examine the rules and procedures with the objectives of giving decision making, responsibility, and accountability to the organization. Replace bureaucracy with responsibility.

In a workplace filled with nonsense, it takes courage to be human, an enlivened spirit, and a leader of culture. Here are five focus areas that can reduce nonsense and build an engaging environment.

• Let leaders lead. Having leadership responsibilities in a job description doesn’t guarantee leadership. Often, bureaucratic compliance masquerades as leadership. By nature, leaders get out in front and make anew, create or re-create, rethink, and then move others to join in action. Work to create an environment where leaders dive into the holistic meaning of good conduct, leadership principles, and contributing to the collective purpose of the organization. Give room for decision making and expect greatness along with mistakes. When mistakes occur, invest in leaders by fostering reflection and discovery. Have leaders shoulder responsibility for connecting with people and supporting their spirits of creation and purposeful engagement. Remember that although power can corrupt, lack of power and reliance on bureaucracy has its own history of corruption.

• Have the audacity to call nonsense for what it is. It’s not about blame or ridicule. It is asking others to re-examine past decisions and their system-wide impacts. Where rules and proce- dures have gotten in the way of people doing what is productive and right, draw attention to the costs versus the benefits. Then move to look for alternatives—the “and” versus the “or.” How might the objective of the rules or procedures be met without the unwanted consequences? How can we put choice back into the equation and emphasize reliance upon the judgment of people to do the right thing?

• Have fewer rules and restrictive policies but more principles. From archaic attendance and sick- leave policies to forced rankings and the yearly performance appraisals, human resources policies need a new look — away from the parent-child relationship toward a model of purposeful people joined together to create value in the world. Human resources can be a force for building spirit, not just controlling unwanted behaviors and seeking risk reduction. Formative conversations around desired principles will have to replace the one-way generation of rules. Take an inventory of the rules and restrictive policies that currently exist. Eliminate the unnecessary and despiriting rules. Curb the constant outpouring of proclamations, rules, slogans, and restrictive policies.

• See through the lens of spirit. Take a good look at the messages sent. Do they have a parent-child tone, or do they convey a message of respect for the human spirit? When looking through the lens of spirit, work appears as a human endeavor performed by whole individuals acting with a collective purpose. If the needed human resources materials are crafted to call people to act responsibly according to what is right and good for the collective effort, then they will activate the spirit, not dampen it. There will be outliers among the group, but address them individually without scolding and demeaning others. On the whole, people do live up to expectations—regardless of whether those expectations are high or low.

• Smile at the collective and individual bafoonery. One could choose to become cynical or instead to chuckle. Smile at the nonsense and then address it. Workplaces are communities in the making, evolving and changing. Leadership takes the responsibility for creating the existing culture (good, bad, or ugly) and then moving to guide the community to improvement. When a leader has a good heart and sense of humor, the culture is enriched. Laughter is an elixir for the soul!

Dilbert will continue to thrive; fodder for sitcoms and editorials will be plentiful. Some management will continue to travel the road of encouraging rule-based, parent-to-child workplace environments with the belief that people are not capable in mass to think on their own. Remember what John Stuart Mill so wisely wrote in his essay, On Liberty, when advocating for democracy, “A state which dwarfs its people, so that they may be more docile instruments in its hand, even for the most beneficial reasons, will find that with small men no great things can be accomplished.”5

Removing personal responsibility in the work- place produces nonsense and trains people to be small. By slowing down just a bit, asking questions about personal responsibility, and holding people accountable for living into timeless principles of good conduct, the abundance of nonsensical rules and policies could be reduced. Given the abundance of nonsense in the workplace, leadership has a great opportunity. Take courage and lead toward creating a more enlivened and engaging community.


1. Philp K. Howard, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America, Random House, New York, 2011.

2. Wikipedia, Dilbert,

3. Liz Ryan, “Five Stupid Rules That Drive Great Employees Away,”, July 22, 2015, http:// rules-that-drive-great-employees-away/2/#646be2aa6be0.

4. Christina Majaski, “CareerNews: 10 Crazy Workplace Rules You Won’t Believe,” PayScale, http://www. rules-you-wont-believe.

5. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1869.

Stephen Hacker is CEO and a founding partner of Transformation Systems International, LLC. As a consul- tant, author, and leader, he engages with organizations throughout the world in achieving breakthrough performance. After completing his corporate career as a senior leader with Procter & Gamble, he served as the executive director of The Performance Center, a multi- university organization conducting action research. He is a past ASQ chair and an ASQ Fellow. Contact him at