by Rae Buckley, Town of Chapel Hill, NC, LinkedIn
Social psychiatrists have speculated and tested why people enjoy watching sports. There’s a theory of symbolic catharsis that says we release our own tension and aggression while watching a game. There’s also a statistical analysis called the talent-luck theory that says we like watching physical feats but we still want to be surprised. For me, I got into watching professional football when I was pregnant and realized that watching sports was a socially legitimate reason to sit on a couch for an entire day and eat junk food. It was extreme exposure and pretty quickly I got immersed in more than the snacks. And because I’m a dork and I love my job, I started seeing situations during games that offered perspective on my work in local government management. Has that ever happened to you? Maybe it’s just coming to the game late in life, but from the vantage point of my couch I found I could observe conflict, success, strategy, and leadership on the football field in a way that helped me rethink situations at work or see them differently than when they are happening in real time.
Is exploiting a rule the same thing as breaking the rule?
Let me give you a recent example of a football experience that made me think of work. It starts with a question. Is exploiting a rule the same thing as breaking the rule? That’s the question that consumed sports talkers everywhere after New England Patriots barely beat the Baltimore Ravens in a recent playoff game. Because with a final score of 35-31, there is no question that the Patriot’s use of a rule that allows major playmakers on a team to line up as “ineligible” on the line of scrimmage made a difference in the outcome of the game. Why? Because the maneuver left the Ravens’ defense only seconds to figure out who to cover after the snap and it turns out a few seconds are not enough.
Technically the Patriots weren’t cheating but it didn’t feel quite right either. In my work life I think of a parallel situation of an employee who uses the sick leave rule to ‘earn and burn.’ They exploit a rule for their benefit and it just doesn’t sit right. So what do you do? In my experience a supervisor in this situation often wants someone else to write or re-write a policy so the situation won’t be allowed to occur. And that’s exactly what the Ravens head coach asked the NFL to do in his post-game interview. But how will this help? When the Patriots Quarter Back heard that suggestion he replied, “those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out. We obviously knew what we were doing and made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us. We’ll have something in store next week.”
Some employees are just like the Patriots
And that’s the thing about re-writing a policy every time you have someone figure out how to exploit it, right? There are simply employees who, just like the Patriots, are going to figure out another way to get what they want regardless of what a rule says. And as much as we’d like someone else to fix it, sometimes supervisors have to “tackle” these problems themselves. Why? Because changing a rule that otherwise works well is a major upheaval and investment of energy for everyone else and there is no guarantee you’ll fix the problem with the individual employee.
So what are the tools we have for managing this situation in local government? In North Carolina, just cause is needed to take employee disciplinary action. So you look for a pattern of behavior, you document it, you adjust your game and you confront the situation. In sports terms, you identify the pattern, anticipate the pattern, and create a game plan to manage the pattern. An example that comes to mind is how Peyton Manning, a quarterback for the Denver Broncos, is known for exploiting the rule about “too many players on the field” against the team he’s playing to gain a 5 yard penalty. The thing is, he does this every chance he gets and when it happens, you find yourself saying to the team who got dinged, “c’mon! It’s not like you didn’t know he was going to do that!” A successful game plan against Manning’s use of the rule is simply using extreme discipline when moving players on and off the field.
Policies should cover 90% of the normal everyday situations at work. Part of what a policy doesn’t always cover is an employee who wants to game the system. Have you been successful at managing a rule exploitation situation? Or have you seen a game plan that’s effective against rule exploitation?