Rules of Engagement (ROE)

Welcome to our monthly church meeting.
Before we begin, let’s review our R-O-E.
We treat everyone as if we believed
they, too, have a spark of divinity.
We assume good intentions, even or especially
in those with whom we disagree on methods or priorities.
We are grateful for this opportunity
to work in community, even when it’s frustratingly slow.

Said no church-committee chairperson ever.

Welcome to our weekly marketing meeting.
Before we begin, let’s review our R-O-E.
We treat everyone as if they were a customer.
We put more effort into eliciting other points of view
than to persuading others to our point of view.
We respect the value our colleagues add
and believe that they are as committed to the welfare
of the company and this work group as we are.

Said no marketing vice-president ever.

Welcome to our daily sitting in the House of Commons.
Before we begin, let’s review our R-O-E.
We treat our fellow Members of Parliament
as respected representatives of Canadians.
We give this imperfect democratic institution
the respect it has earned
by staving off tyranny for 800 years.
We show respect to the Canadians we serve
by asking questions to get information, not to score points,
and by answering questions honestly and completely.

Said no Speaker of the House of Commons ever.

Why not? Why don’t organizations remind themselves of their putative rules of engagement, their alleged values?

Back in the 20th century, I was tasked with helping an executive refine a company’s vision, mission, and values statements. It wasn’t a great workplace collaboration. I kept trying to get the organizational-development type to be more specific and concrete, and he kept trying to get the literal-reader type to accept warm-and-fuzzy vague pronouncements.

Finally one day I snapped and spoke what was really on my mind, and it wasn’t lack of specificity or concreteness, turns out.

“We don’t actually do the things this says.
We don’t live these values.”

He looked at me for a moment.

“Isn’t there value in an aspirational statement?”

I looked at him.

“Yes. But it should be framed as that,
not as a statement of fact.”

We did it his way: He was the executive. (I think that might have violated Value #3 about the importance of listening to the little people.)

Anyway, decades later, I care less about how a values statement is phrased than about its potential for inspiring people to be better. Now I care about why values statements aren’t used more often to remind our better angels of what they already know.

Hey hi to everyone who lives in Isabel’s head.
Before we get out of bed, let’s review our R-O-E.
We give everyone we meet our full attention
and accept them as they are,
even the others in here that we’re not crazy about.
We are patient facing delays,
persistent facing obstacles,
and realistic facing disappointments.
We don’t whine about our lot in life,
but we are empathetic when others do.
OK, at least we don’t complain about them.
OK, not out loud.

Values statements can be facts or aspirations, however modest, but no matter how they’re worded they only have any, um, value if we trot them out from time to time and use them.


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19 Responses to Rules of Engagement (ROE)

  1. barbara carlson says:

    Ah, yes, inauthentic faí§ades — seeing “behind the curtain” — and then one day you realize there IS no curtain, that putting one up is just sad, and complicated and destructive to the deluded curtain hanger.
    Having, holding to good Rules of Engagement makes life so much better, and simpler.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – And can we become what we pretend to be and what we aspire to be seen as? That executive might have been arguing that point, but I was never sure . . . 🙂

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    I don’t think I’m violating confidences here. A few years ago — quite a few — a friend sat on the Board of a Canadian Bank. The Directors were thrashing out a statement of purpose, or something. They were leaning towards one person who insisted, “Our job is to make money!” My friend interjected, “Then you should be in prostitution or gambling, not in banking.”
    Long silence.
    Eventually, I think, they settled on something like, “Our job is to help our customers use their money to make money.”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – 🙂 Yup. “Making money” is a poor mission statement. The means matters.

    • barbara carlson says:

      Probably not… a bifurcated mind tends to continue to be split just fine.

      • barbara carlson says:

        This was supposed to be under your comment to my comment, up top.
        o well

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – I think there’s been some work on cognitive dissonance which argues that when our behaviour is at odds with our opinions/beliefs, we gradually adapt the latter. So in one sense that might look like living up to our stated ideals.

    • barbara carlson says:

      “Our job is to make money” seems the sub-text for every business, even, and sadly, the Arts.

      Money is just a tool to keep being able to do what you like to do. A means, not the end. Right?

  3. Tom Watson says:

    I’m sure that everybody has noticed how often mission statements include the word “life.” They don’t talk as much about the business as about how much they will improve your life…or their product will improve your life.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yeah, I think mission statements have fallen prey to the impulse/need to make them suitable for public/marketing purposes rather than just North stars for the organization.

  4. Eric J Hrycyk says:

    A common credo for the upper echelons of organizations is found in an old George Burns quote: “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    • barbara carlson says:

      …and didn’t Shakespeare have a word to say about us all? — actors, strutting on a stage…

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – The Scottish Play, apparently:
        Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
        That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
        And then is heard no more.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Eric – 🙂 And at some level I don’t care what’s going on in the inside, just what behaviour is on the outside. It isn’t quite that clear-cut, but it’s closer to that than I sometimes suppose.

  5. Dear Isabel,
    From “Back in the 20th century …” to the poetic “Hey hi to everyone who lives in Isabel’s head/ Before we get out of bed …” this meditation on rules of engagement sings. Ear-to-ear smiles and thanks for leaving out the part about “a tale told by an idiot.” Kudos to you.

  6. Pingback: R-O-E Redux | Traditional Iconoclast

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