Is Nature Handicapped by Stupid Rules?

Is Nature Handicapped by Stupid Rules? 1024 548 The Body Corporate

Few things rob me of motivation more than running up against stupid rules. If you walk the corridors of human organizational life, and listen carefully, you will hear both the complaints and consequences of needless bureaucracy. It made me wonder if Nature imposes these frustrations on its membership?

I won’t lie. I’m allergic to rules. Not all rules; just stupid rules. You will realize that “stupid” is judgmental terminology that gives me great latitude in allocating my own value to any rule. But truthfully, I’m no different to any other human being. We are all frustrated by imposed boundaries that do not to appear to support mission critical. With this default, I was delighted to read a provocative article by Liz Ryan, CEO and Founder of Human Workplace. Her opinion, captured in “Ten Stupid Rules That Drive Great Employees Away” accuses “stupid rules” of spurring top talent to head for the door. She summarizes her hypothesis as follows: “The more policies, the less passion you’ll get from your team. The less passion, the less exciting the team’s performance will be. The less exciting the performance, the lower your profits will be.”

Ryan identified 10 stupid rules that drive great employees away, including stupid attendance policies, stupid dress code rules, stupid disciplinary rules, bell curved performance reviews, and my personal favorite “stupid approvals for everything”! Central to her theory is that employees want to be regarded and treated as mature, self-motivated, self-disciplined, performance-driven human beings. Rules that undermine these perceptions erode trust and motivation. Good employees struggle to give their best, and end up running for the exit. This is true in commercial, educational, and civil organizations alike.

We all understand that human organizational life is complex in motive and design. We understand that we need some guides to help align ethics, behavior and effort, and to drive the efficient use of organizational resources. We need policies to ensure consistency and compliance with strategic direction. We need standard operating procedures that instruct employees in the performance of specific tasks, especially common, important or sensitive tasks. But what is enough? And what is too much?

My instinct is always to look to Mother Nature for guidance; how does she regulate her highly complex organization? If we explore this, we quickly find ourselves in a quagmire of terminology and philosophical debate. Perhaps the most striking observation is that we humans have no control over Nature’s rules. They do not belong to us. Some rules are regarded as Laws, such as Newton’s law of gravity and motion, the ideal gas laws, and the law of supply and demand. Other phenomena, such as the predictable pattern of ocean tides are well-recognized “regularities” but don’t quite achieve the status of “laws” because leading scientists believe they require further explanation. The regularities that achieve the status of law appear to have some divine intention or truth, whereas lesser observations are regarded as interesting or important patterns. We invoke statistical analysis to determine the reproducibility or predictability of any such regularity or pattern in order to weight its validity. This is important, because if we are going to design skyscrapers, build bridges or cure cancer we need dependable equations to guide us.

What about the invisible social rules that govern natural society? There are hierarchical rules that reinforce the relative importance of individuals in a social construct (“pecking order”). These have important consequences, with the highest ranked individuals enjoying important rewards that enhance their survival and procreativity. They get “the lions share” of advantage. Although this phrase is not strictly true, it does imply that some species like lion dominate certain ecosystems with clear benefit to the species. If you drill down a bit within the lion pride, you will find that the dominant males always get preference at feeding time. Even when they don’t capture the prey, they get to eat first, ahead of females and juvenile males. The little cubs get the last sitting. This social order supports the survival of the group that is dependent on having strong males to protect them.

Reproductive rights are also allocated by social hierarchy, and are often disputed or defended with great aggression. The dominant male lion in a pride gets to inseminate his females and perpetuate his superior genetic lineage. When challengers appear, they must fight and win if they are to enjoy breeding advantage. Again, nature imposes rules to reinforce the fundamental strategy of perpetuating robust genes.

This brings me to Nature’s recommendations. The laws such as gravity and ideal gas equations support fundamental properties of the world we live in. Behavioral laws in nature optimize the fundamental prerogatives of natural species – to survive, conserve energy and procreate. There appear to be few trivial policies. Can we learn from this? Can the architects and enforcers of human organizational policy and procedure structure and defend only rules that impact fundamental organizational properties, such as ethical, structural or economic strategy and integrity? Don’t waste energy or alienate the organization with rules on trivial topics. Hire mature, self-motivated, self-disciplined, performance-driven human beings, then GET OUT OF THEIR WAY, let them do their jobs and enjoy their work!

Have fun,


(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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