Principles vs. Techniques, Laws and Other Burdensome Rules

When I lead The Principles of Persuasion Workshop for salespeople I tell attendees that a sales technique is good unless you find yourself in a situation where the technique doesn’t apply. If all you know is a technique or pithy response but not the why behind it you’ll probably find yourself a loss. However, understanding principles let you know why those sale techniques work which opens up many more options and gives you quite a bit of freedom. I was reminded of this thought as I read the blog post “Burn Your Rule Book and Unlock the Power of Principles” by Eric J. McNulty. He wrote:

“Principles, unlike rules, give people something unshakable to hold onto yet also the freedom to take independent decisions and actions to move toward a shared objective. Principles are directional, whereas rules are directive. A simple example of a rule: ‘All merchandise returns must be made within 30 days.’ Contrast this with Nordstrom’s principle-based approach: ‘Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.’ The former shows no trust in either the sales associate or the customer. The latter is exactly the opposite and encourages the frontline worker to build a relationship with the customer.”

What does “the return must be within 30 days” rule signal? It could be that the company doesn’t trust its customers. They feel they will be taken advantage of so they have to limit the chance of that happening. A fundamental distrust of people might say more about the organization than the customers.

The rule could also signal that the company don’t trust their employees to make good decisions. Perhaps they need to do a better job hiring the right people and then training them on how to make good decisions that benefit the customer and the company.

As I considered principles and rules I thought about how Jane and I raise our daughter Abigail. We’ve always spent a lot of time talking with Abigail from the time she was very little. We didn’t want to just teach her right and wrong, good and bad. Rather, we wanted her to understand why we believed some things were good and some bad, and what made something right or wrong. Granted, these concepts are very subjective but we all possess subjective values and we pass our values along because we believe they’re good to live by.

My verification that we were on the right track came as Abigail approached her 16th birthday. My mom told me she was having a conversation with Abigail about getting her license and her curfew. Abigail told my mom that she didn’t have a curfew to which my mom responded, “Oh you better believe you do.” Abigail told her again that she didn’t have a curfew and again, my mom insisted she did, along with other rules. Then Abigail said, “No grandma, I really don’t have any rules but I wouldn’t do anything to break my parents trust.” Wow! That’s exactly what Jane and I would have hoped for. She wasn’t focused on the minutia of following rules but simply wanted to maintain a good relationship with us.

We’re not as involved in church as we used to be and I know church gets a bad rap quite often for reasons too numerous to list here. Church can seem like a rule based life to define good and bad but that’s not how I see it. When it comes to living right I believe this passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “For the whole law is fulfilled on one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That’s pretty simple just like not breaking parent’s trust and just like using your best judgement. If something goes wrong following these simple principles then you have a coaching opportunity with your child or employee.

I encourage you to give thought to this idea this week. If you’re a parent, manager or run a company are you loading people down with rules or helping them understand why you want them to do what you’ve asked them to do?  George Patton once said, “If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the result.” Tell your kids and employees where you want them to go, give a few guiding principles and they might just surprise you.

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Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer at influencePEOPLE
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is a sales trainer, coach and consultant whose specialty is applying persuasion and influence in sales and customer service situations. He is one of 20 individuals in the world who currently hold the CMCT designation. Brian’s blog, Influence PEOPLE, is followed by people in 200 countries and made the Online Psychology Degree Guide Top 30 Psychology Blogs in 2012.
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