I learned an interesting lesson about rules today.
I had an 8AM Tokyo-time Skype call back to the United States. Tokyo is notorious for its surprisingly poor WiFi, so I went to an internet cafe.
The internet cafes in Japan are interesting -- you get your own private cubicle that has a computer with a very large monitor and noise-canceling headphones, comfortable chairs, pillows, and sometimes blankets. In the rest of the cafe, there's also comic books, DVDs, and a selection of free teas, coffees, juices, and sodas. Sometimes they have other amenities for free or for sale -- often they'll sell dress shirts, do laundry, have showers, selling grooming kits, and sell other kinds of hot food and snacks.
Drinks are totally free to have as many as you like. After finishing my call, I grabbed a surprisingly good hot coffee in a paper cup, paid my bill, and went to leave.
The man at the counter said, in Japanese, "I'm sorry, but you can't take that drink into the elevator when you go to leave." I said, "Huh, okay, I'll take the stairs?" He said, "No, I'm really sorry, but can you finish your drink over there and put it on the tray before you leave please?"
And I found myself walking over to the little area next to the drinks, having a few sips of coffee, and putting it down before I walked to the elevator drink-less.
Throughout, I felt a sort of wonderment that that had happened -- I had just willingly followed a rule that seemed both pointless and unenforceable.
That's one of the first things to think about when setting rules: you want to be very, very careful not to set rules you can't enforce. If you create a bunch of arbitrary rules and policies without any enforcement mechanism, people learn they can break the rules without worrying about it. It downward spirals pretty quickly from there, regardless if the rules are set by a government, by a company for their staff, or by a company for customers of the establishment.
There's a lot of rules various leaders would like to install, but given that they can't enforce them, smart leaders don't set the rules only to watch them be broken and a culture of rule-breaking established.
Rules that everyone agree are good can be set even if they don't have a very strong enforcement mechanism. Making it a "rule" just formalizes the convention that everyone wants.
But what about when things are neither obviously enforceable, nor obviously intelligent? No drink in the elevator? I can't think of why that rule would be set. Did people spill in the past? Does the business think by setting that rule, less people will take a drink to go with them at the end, thus saving them a very small amount of money? I can't get my mind around the rationale of it.
Yet, I followed it. So I asked myself why. I identified three things --
1. Japan is a rules-based culture that everyone is following the rules and, generally speaking, things work pretty harmoniously and well.
This is by far the biggest one. If you're somewhere like Vietnam and someone tells you there's an arbitrary rule, you just assume it's some sort of corruption, a scam they're trying to run, or something else arbitrary and pointless. Vietnamese people and visitors regularly break as many rules as they feel they can. Whereas in Japan, there's some arbitrary qualities, but overall everyone is following the rules and society is running pretty well. People are more inclined to follow rules when everyone else. This is the largest, but not the only factor.
2. The employee's tone was one of complete certainty. He said, "I'm sorry, but you can't…" -- if he'd been uncertain at all, I'd have probably just left with the coffee right away. But he was completely certain and matter-of-fact about it. There was no inquisitiveness. Even though he phrased it as a question, he wasn't really asking.
3. And very importantly, he wasn't belligerent at all. Sometimes people take a morally righteous or demanding tone when enforcing the rules, and people from highly individualistic societies buckle at that. He was sympathetic, like he almost wanted to let me take the coffee with me. If it was up to him, who knows, maybe I could take the coffee. But, he's sorry, you can't take the coffee to the elevator.
That combination of being sympathetic without being belligerent goes a long way when trying to get a rule followed. Sometimes in Japan people are kind of aggressive about rules. They'll cross their arms into an X-shape and tell you that you can't do something, very strongly.
I've traveled and seen Americans and Australians encounter this, and there's very frequently a pushing back against it. Our cultures dislike being talked to like that, especially when the rule seems arbitrary and there's no enforcement mechanism.
If he'd said in a rougher tone, "Hey! You can't bring that drink with you!" I'd have probably just taken the drink with me and replied while walking, "Ah, gomenosai. Sugoko isogashii des. Shigoto, ne? Gomen, gomen." (English, roughly: "Ah, sorry about that. I'm very busy, I've got to go to work, y'know? Sorry, sorry about that.") And then I'd have just left with the coffee, and nothing would have happened.
It would have been easy to do and there would been no consequences to doing it, and I would have gotten to enjoy my coffee slowly. Yet, I didn't do it.
I think that's pretty interesting and can be learned from. Here's my recap of why I think his way worked to get the rule followed --
1. Rules based culture, where everyone is following the rules and things seem to be working well.
2. Matter-of-factness that a rule exists. Tone of informing people that there's a rule, not of requesting they follow it.
3. Sympathy and warmth when mentioning the rule, no belligerence or moral righteousness when informing about the rule and the way to follow it.
Those are points I'll look to remember on topics like training employees, setting rules for an establishment, parenting, or anywhere else that you need cooperation from people you're asking to follow the rules.
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