Rules and Standards and Guidelines, Oh My! 

J. Keith Hughey


 Volume XX, Number 24 (Issue 976) June 13, 2022

Rules and Standards and Guidelines, Oh My!

With an obvious nod to “The Wizard of Oz,” I want to talk about the important distinctions among another trio of potentially scary things known to us as rules, standards, and guidelines. But before delving into that discussion, I need to acknowledge the source of the seed for today’s message, namely, Noise – A Flaw in Human Judgement by Professors Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein (Little, Brown Spark, 2021). It was a passage there that provoked my ruminations on the relationship between rules, standards, and guidelines and their collective influence on the many decisions you and I make and the actions we take.

Perhaps the best and only place to start is with working definitions of the three – although in the case of rules, a working definition doesn’t seem required. Nonetheless, for our purposes we will state that a rule is the equivalent of a law or something that is non-negotiable. As such, it is not subject to individual interpretation or discretion as to whether it is to be adhered to or can be ignored or fudged. Furthermore, failure to conform carries consequences, if not designated penalties. That said, rules can be altered or amended over time as the circumstances and values that first led to their creation change. But because rules are so intransigent, changing them takes considerable time and effort such that their stickiness can produce a host of unintended problems in the face of evolving norms.

A standard, in contrast to a rule, develops informally and often over time. Standards therefore tend to reflect current values and practices. You might think of a standard as a “better” if not “best practice” in a contemporary setting. The language therefore lends itself to terms like standards of behavior, standards of care, standards of performance, etc. Standards, being less ridged than rules, evolve more rapidly in the face of societal change.

That leaves us with guidelines. Guidelines, much like standards, are more flexible and therefore more responsive to changing norms. Better still, they are the equivalent of practical suggestions usually derived from others’ experiences and the lessons they’ve learned. As such they are more about “should” than “must” since they amount to helpful hints rather than requirements that restrict creativity or freedom of choice.

Rules, therefore, dictate decisions and behaviors for the law-abiding. The aim is to produce certain “desired” outcomes. However, even among the rule followers there

can be a temptation to bend the rules when we think there is something to be gained relative to any downside risks. Thus, even though I am a rule follower at heart, I tend to drive over the posted speed limit (except in school zones). In short, I treat posted speed limits more like guidelines.

One way to think about this is rules tend to get in the way of creativity and therefore problem solving. Standards, though they prescribe behaviors, permit improvement, particularly at the margin. Guidelines, in contrast, promote flexibility and innovation. In organizations, there is a time, place, and need for all three depending upon the context and your objectives. Making appropriate distinctions between the three is the challenge.

But what if we move from the macro to the micro? By that I mean what about the times when one of your, my, or our collective core values is tested? Is it a code of conduct that we adhere to when it is convenient, and it suits us? Or are our professed values similar to a property line that we are unwilling to cross no matter what? Some authorities on this topic will tell you core values come in two varieties: “permission to play” (sacred and non-negotiable) and “aspirational” (where good intentions abound but also fully recognizing no one is perfect). Ultimately, the true test of one’s values is not what you think or say about them. Instead, it is what you do that reveals if your principles of conduct are rules to live by, standards of behavior, or mere guidelines. How each of us choose to act when others are watching and when they are not says much about the thing we call character.

Soli Deo Gloria

“For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.” 2 Corinthians 8:21

Keith Hughey
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Copyright 2022 by J. Keith Hughey. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for reproduction and redistribution of this essay as provided under the copyright laws of the United States of America. The entire early library of Monday Morning Musings issues may be found at Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

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