‘Shoes must be polished before meetings with clients’; ‘Men must wear a tie at all times in the office’; ‘The kitchen is not a meeting room’; ‘You must eat your lunch during your official lunch break and at no other time’; ‘No more than one personal item on your desk.’

Many of these are rules I’ve come across in real organisations during my career, but you can read about some of the more ridiculous workplace rules here.

“Bureaucracy is not a good operating model for the 21st century”

Now there may be really good reasons why it’s essential that these rules apply in your work place, but if it’s really important to your business that people look smart in front of customers and people have to be told via an office rule that they must polish their shoes before they meet them, it’s either a failure to communicate the organisation’s priorities effectively to the team, or just maybe the people in those customer-facing roles are not right for the role.

There are lots of ways that rules are inhibiting our productivity in the workplace, especially those that we see as unnecessary. Read the main reasons below and then review your workplace rules. How many of them are really necessary? Get rid of as many as you can and it will change the way your workplace feels and operates, for the better. Bureaucracy is not a good operating model for the 21st century.

1. Rules take away people’s freedom to choose and impacts their motivation

Freedom makes us happier. It’s one of the things that makes people happier at the weekend than they are during the week, according to Richard Ryan, (Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester, New York State). Happier people are more motivated and more productive, so it makes sense that when we have more freedom around our work and our workplace we’ll be nicer people to work with and a whole lot more productive. Simple really.

“When unnecessary rules are imposed on us, we feel less of a sense of responsibility towards the organisation”

2. Rules take away people’s sense of responsibility for their work

When unnecessary rules are imposed on us, we feel less of a sense of responsibility towards the organisation because we don’t feel that we’ve got a real stake in it, or are a valued part of it. That has a big impact on how we do our job and can undermine our feelings of satisfaction when things are going well. Most of us really enjoy having a reasonable level of responsibility and get a kick out of the success of a team we’re part of. Why don’t more organisations make the most of that?

3. Rules make people think managers have low expectations of them

We perform best when people have high expectations of us and encourage and support us to achieve them. A great manager (or friend, or partner, or family member) can help us achieve things we never believed we’d be capable of. But when unnecessary rules are imposed on us, we don’t get a message that we’re expected to do amazing things, but that we’re expected to do the wrong thing if left to our own devices. That’s very demotivating and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you tell people that you expect them to fail, they often will.

4. The rules are often unnecessary

Rules in organisations are often introduced because something’s happened in the past (perhaps involving just one employee or one occasion) and those that make the rules have overreacted to it. I was once asked to put in place a rule that people couldn’t poo in a certain toilet at work, because someone had left a bad smell and some ‘evidence’ which had offended colleagues. So rather than address the problem sensitively with the individual concerned (because we had a pretty good idea who’d done it), I was asked to post a sign on the toilet door to the effect that certain ‘deposits’ could not be made. Needless to say I didn’t introduce a new rule. Given the negative impact rules can have on people, why introduce unnecessary ones?

“Think carefully about how new rules are introduced”

5. Rules reinforce those ‘us and them’ divisions within the workplace

By deciding the rules that others have to live by, managers make it really clear to everyone who has the power. Moreover if there’s no clear understanding about why a rule exists, then it can feel as though managers are exercising their power over us just because they can, rather than for the good of the organisation. That does nothing for our motivation or our productivity. Think carefully about how new rules are introduced (if you must introduce them at all), involve others in the decision-making process and ensure that everyone understands the reasons for the new rules.

When you’ve reviewed the rules that apply in your workplace, why not share the most ridiculous rules you come across in the comments.