Rules and standards: Finding the right balance starts with knowing the difference

Fire service leaders must learn to articulate clarity with rules and nuance with standards

Many fire service organizations talk about the importance of applying rules and standards to the actions people take on the job, but they often don’t make a clear distinction between the two. Sometimes these two words are used interchangeably; in reality, they are quite different.

Here’s the difference:

  • Rules are specific and fact-based. You show up to work at a certain time. You wear a specific uniform. You wear seatbelts when a vehicle is moving.
  • Standards are principle-based and allow for interpretation. You complete assignments in a timely manner. You behave professionally. You drive safely.
Conflict and confusion can occur when rules and standards are treated the same.
Conflict and confusion can occur when rules and standards are treated the same. (Photo/Getty Images)

How to eliminate confusion

Conflict and confusion can occur when rules and standards are treated the same. Let’s explore some examples to help make the distinction.

Obeying rules is an either-or proposition. You either show up to work on time or you don’t. Trying to evaluate such behavior on a relative scale makes no sense and leads to what decision scientists call “noise” in decision-making. Would someone get a higher score if they show up 10 minutes early? Or 20 minutes early? And if you want people to show up 20 minutes early, then why isn’t that the rule?

A lack of interpretation is a rule. For example, you may have a state standard that 70 is a passing grade on the EMT test. But in reality, there are only two possibilities here. Get a 70 or above and you are an EMT. Score 69 or lower and you’re not.

Scale-based evaluations work for standards, not rules. Some fire departments include rule-based criteria on sliding scale evaluation forms. Many organizations use scale-based evaluation instruments (e.g., “On a scale of 1-10, how effective is this firefighter in accomplishing a certain task or goal?”). Such evaluation can work with the application of standards but loses meaning when applied to rules.

Rules reduce noise, but also nuance

Noise is defined as error and unnecessary variability in decision-making that is not attached to specific biases. We are all susceptible to bias in judgment and decision-making, both from personal history and from human frailty. But even without specific bias present, different people may make different judgments given similar conditions.

Rules reduce noise in decision-making. They make expectations crystal clear. They tend to make decisions and outcomes more consistent under some circumstances.

However, rules also reduce the opportunity to use personal judgment and discretion. They can be a blunt instrument when nuance is called for. They can also lead to crippling micromanagement.

Using rules to augment standards

The best results come when rules and standards are used in tandem. For example, consider the general standard, “Firefighters will behave professionally when in the workplace.” Many fire departments have this kind of language written into their policies.

The potential problems here are obvious. Who gets to decide what constitutes professional behavior? What might be offensive to some people could be seen as completely fine to others. And what about context – can some words or actions be OK in some circumstances but not in others?

This is where rules can augment standards. If you want to strictly forbid the use of alcohol in the fire station, then say this explicitly. If there are certain words you never want to hear used in the workplace, then identify those words and make it clear that no one, regardless of personal relationship or context, will use those words while at work.

Rules create greater consistency and reduce noise, but you don’t want a complete rules-based environment at work either. For example, some words may be clearly inappropriate, but others may depend on context. Trying to develop a strict rule for every potential misuse of language will lead to ridiculous levels of control.

When workplaces are overly controlling, people tend to abandon initiative. They wait to be told what to do and will only do exactly what is ordered. Managing people in this way is a terrible waste of human resource. It also is a bad way to approach emergency response, the nature of which is that a situation may be defying a given rule or expectation.

Yet the opposite extreme is dangerous, too. Abandoning all rules and giving individuals complete latitude to make decisions can allow for inconsistency, freelancing and the tolerance of bad actors for far too long.

Making it all work­­­­­

The key is to find a balance.

Develop reasonable, necessary rules that apply equally to everyone. Make standards as clear as possible, then train and support individuals to make good judgments and interpret those standards in a positive way. Don’t allow rules and standards to become fossilized in the culture, but instead consider them as living things that must be continually reconsidered and evaluated.

Most importantly, foster a culture where everyone wants the organization to be its best and feels empowered to make decisions that support this goal.

Source: Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R. Sunnstein. Hachette Books, 2021.

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