Skip to main content

4 Reasons Why I Hate Policies and 4 Suggestions to Improve Them

I’ll be honest. I’m not a huge fan of most policies. It may be because I’m not a very good rule follower, but I honestly don’t think many policies work as well as they are intended.

Policies are defined as a course, plan or principle of action. They are designed, by definition, to offer a sense of control. In theory, policies are to make things better and, I will admit, they are a necessary part of dealing with people in an organizational setting. Without policies we would have chaos.

I realize even the title of this post has some people already objecting. I will have some of my rule following friends who disagree with my wording or maybe even that I would seem against policies. And, maybe the title is too strong. I probably should say I hate bad policies, because that’s more the reality. I love good policies. Okay, love is too strong a word also, but I don’t hate them. But, it’s my firm conviction many organizations (especially churches) have too many policies. And, especially too many bad policies.

My problem with polices is they often interrupt progress rather than enhance it. If not careful, a policy may control the success you want to see as a leader. I personally would rather have chaos with no policies than a bunch of really bad policies.

When I got to an established church we had a policy – voted on by the church in a business meeting at some point – on folded chairs. True story. It told the procedures to do if someone borrowed folding chairs from the church. It should be noted we probably no longer even had the chairs of which the policy spoke, but just in case we ever did again there was already a policy in place.

Granted, policies may make sense when they are created, but as we look at the issue from a bigger picture they can even appear comical over time. Obviously, we can figure out what led to a folding chair policy. Someone borrowed chairs. They didn’t bring them back or treat them as they should. Therefore, to prevent this from ever occurring again people wrote a new policy. (Not to be over-dramatic, but it almost sounds like what the religious rulers were doing when Jesus began His ministry.)

Here are 4 reasons I hate policies:

Policies eliminate a sense of freedom

Policies, by nature, are methods of control. Even for those who love rules and want everything spelled out for them, policies can add a sense of burden as you attempt (or don’t attempt) to live up to their demands. Show me an environment with a bunch of policies and you can almost always find some stressed out people.

Policies limit ability to think outside the box

Policies can limit thoughts to a pre-determined outcome, which keeps the random and potentially explosive thoughts from developing. They can limit people’s ability to dream, explore, redesign and imagine. If everything is spelled out for people they have no reason to actually think for themselves.

Policies stall attempts at excellence

The parameters of a policy often produce an atmosphere of mediocrity. Everything is clear. Planned. Written. Solved. No need for improvement here until someone finds another way to mess up, of course, then we need to add another policy.

Policies curtail the pursuit of progress

The weight of meeting the demands of policies can take valuable energy from pursuing things, which have the opportunity of producing greater progress.

And, my suggestions?

In lieu of a policy for everything, here are 4 suggestions:

Handle individual problems individually

Ask yourself if the policy is needed for everyone or just a few people. Is it needed for everyone to keep us organized, effective or legal? When the answer is it’s only for a few people, rather than create a new policy to control an issue, deal directly with the individuals who need more control. For example, in the case of the chair policy I mentioned above, rather than write a policy – go get the chairs! (They are likely in the garage.)

Treat people differently

If a team has more than one person, then there will be more than one type of person on the team. Do you follow me? Policies tend to treat everyone the same, which ignores individuality and personality differences. Some people may need to be in the office to get things done, for example. They may need help disciplining their time. Others may work best when the schedule and work environment is more flexible. Put me in a coffee shop and my productivity grows.

Lead as much (or more) than manage

Management is more about implementing policies and seeing they are adhered to completely. And, we need good management. I’m a huge advocate for good management. Leadership, however, sets a vision and guides people towards it. Less policies are needed in that process.

Purposely allow for mistakes

Policies are easier to measure. They often have a pass/fail assessment attached to them. The less policies you have the more you have to allow for grace and forgiveness. But, people learn from their failures best when they know they can explore and create without the repercussions and fear of breaking a policy.

My bottom line on policies:

I’m not suggesting we can do without policies, or that we should try, but I am suggesting they should not be the “go to” solution to a problem. Most problems in an organization don’t need a new policy. Policies can weigh down progress. Granted, leading is more difficult without policies – even a little messy, but with less policies you’ll almost always have opportunities for greater success.

Here’s a challenge: Look through your policies and rules to see which were created to control people as a reaction to a problem, which should have been handled individually, and which is a policy no longer needed.

The real challenge is to lead towards an environment which empowers more than it controls.

Related Posts

Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

More posts by Ron Edmondson

Join the discussion 29 Comments

  • Ken says:

    The only place I am dogmatic about policy remains in the area of our Child Protection Policies.

  • Luca says:

    I hate all rules and regulations and still im not a violent person . I believe in common sense. I dont bother you you dont bother me. People happy to follow rules are just sheeps in my opinion and they love to belong to a pack . The wolf will slaughter you, the big brother or whoever it is. In 50 yrs they will laugh at the world today . Most regulations are stupid. Regain back your freedom, down with the state, you are better than them. Remember uour freedom comes first

  • Bill says:

    Well, let me go ahead and say it; almost all policies in any organization were either put in place to keep a problem from repeating itself or to make sure one is compliant with the law. Policies are exceptionally good for training new hires. The issue typically is not the policy but the failure to review all policies on a regular schedule and delete or revise those in need of change. Policies also keep everyone from behaving and reacting in their own way and making costly mistakes. My personal experience from many, many years of business lending and consulting is that the best organizations embrace the rules. Non profits were always at the bottom of the list. Unfortunately, churches were many times at the bottom of the non profit list. Just sayin'

    • ronedmondson says:

      I agree. Good point. Keeping them updated is a problem.  I still maintain the fewer policies the better. Maybe when we add one we should take one away.    And, for the life of me, I can never wrap my arms around a church voted in policy for folded chairs. :). 

  • Jim Watson says:

    Properly drawn policies are not a problem. They provide the framework within which activity should occur. They should be the uncrossable boundaries. As such, these policies should be few in number but clear in purpose. I would be hard pressed to come up with enough such policies to fill a single sheet of standard copy paper (with a blank line between each and a font that I can read without my bifocals).

    You don't need a new policy every time something comes up. You certainly don't need a policy book. But, for the sake of all involved, there should be policies, and they should be known to all involved. It seems to me that most of the problems that occur do so because the policies are unknown, unclear, or too flexible.

  • jimpemberton says:

    Policies are tools for leadership. They aren't the only tools, and you listed some others that are important as well. You should use policies where necessary, but use other tools where they are required as well. There's the old adage, "you don't drive a nail with a screwdriver." Policies well-employed provide standards that normalize working relationships and promote trust in organizations. Ill-used, they become a burden to the goals of an organization.

    That said, policies are often opposed, even where the policies are necessary. Sometimes the reason they are opposed is because someone fears that they are being marginalized or stifled by the policy. Sometimes it's because someone is doing something wrong and knows that the policy will hold them accountable for doing their job properly. Often, a policy seems pointless for one area of responsibility while it's absolutely necessary for another area of responsibility.

    Most of the policies I deal with involve the handling of systematized communication. The lines of communication are fairly complex and without some regulation will become unwieldy. Instead of having to investigate each item of communication that comes my way, I know how to handle it because I can trust my role in handling it in context of what everyone else is doing. It saves time, reduces errors, and sets the team up for success. There are special cases where the normal lines of communication may be circumvented in order to meet the needs of a customer. But if every customer is handled that way, then we will be unable to meet the needs of any customer.

    Policies are also marketable. Customers of many industries look for things like adherence to ISO9000 or Sarbanes Oxley in the companies they buy from. That means setting up policies that guarantee adherence to those standards.

    But policies also reduce liability and protect people. My wife is the ministry coordinator for our local chapter of Child Evangelism Fellowship. Taking teams of people into public and private schools means background checks, yearly Child Protection Policy classes, etc. It also means having policies for discipline and keeping track of the kids – even for who gets to pick them up from school. Many teams balk at the policies, but my wife has had to deal with Social Services before in a private day care she once managed. One bad incident could shut the whole chapter down. Formulating and applying policies appropriately is important.

    • ronedmondson says:

      You offer good information. And, obviously sometimes I use a title to gain attention to an issue. I do realize the need for good policies. You list some excellent ones. We need better policies. And, I would say in most churches we need fewer policies. 

  • Wishful Thinking? Your article makes me thinking. Fact is that each form of society is based on “policies”. If that is the smallest form like a partnership (couple) or in bigger forms (business), all is based on ‘Rules, Regulations and Restrictions’!
    Think about it! One example only: how would be the traffic on our streets without them?
    Policies can und should improve, protect and prevent what ever it belongs to – by all means positive aspects if they are made in the right way.
    Those are agreements which we use only then when one of the contracting party makes mistakes -otherwise let them in the drawer.
    And do not forget:
    the 10 COMMANDMENTS are nothing others then Policies and we do good to go with this!
    Thanks for your thought!
    God bless! Pastor Wolfgang

    • ronedmondson says:

      You probably misread my post's intent. I stated a need for policies. I just don't want one unless required. Less is more for me. I love Galatians 5:1 top much. Thanks.

  • Laurinda says:

    Wow, Pastor Ron this was my day and I've been wondering how to write about it on my blog! I felt that policies were being substituted for a lack of leadership ability today. Nothing being put upon us was helping us do our job better nor was it to help the team succeed – which I feel needs to be the driver (outside of employee safety) in any policy.

    When a manager institutes a set of rules without getting to know the people or getting to know how the people are currently operating degrades people. I think it's rooted in their inability to connect with people. You can't create a process or policy to replace good judgement and leadership.

  • Chris_Marsh says:

    I think ultimately if we are operating under the auspices of Grace, then we should be very much about following Matthews example even in group setting as opposed to only one on one. The one on one is the Leader to the Group. The policy is the scripture where it is a three step process. Ultimately arriving at the church level which in effect are the "would be" policy setters. At least I think to Jeffrey's point above, when there is "issue" that is irreconcilable, however, not to demean anyone or any way disrespect anyone, if our Leaders are leading, rarely will there be such a case.
    With regards to "non-issue" policy, yes there should be some guideline, for example funds greater than $20,000 needing to be spent; what is the procedure? Even still when there is such a need everyone that needs to know should already know and if the need is actually a need, there is no need for the micro-manage of the policy. A guideline is in place, a good leader will ensure that everyone is on board, and "procedure" for securing and spending the money will be followed.
    My point is, Good Leaders, will almost always have no need for policy, but rather an outline of "major topic" procedures.A good leader will then be free to cast vision, implement, and attain, with very little "issue".

  • I think it depends on the nature of the policy. Some are quite controlling, but others – particularly very generous and customer-focused ones – may do a lot to set the organizational culture.

    • ronedmondson says:

      That's a great thought Loren, and while I agree in principle, I still think policies must be kept broad, rather than specific. As an example, I love the culture of Nordstrom. Some would call them the best at customer service in the nation. Books have been written. Their "policy"? Make the customer happy. I love the story of someone taking back tires to keep the customer satisfied, even though they've never sold tires. Makes no rational sense, but in the situation, it proved to make a big picture sense.

  • Great stuff! Some policies are needed for basic structure, but the leadership of an organization should be ready to change or at least modify them, at any time. Here's an post from Phil Cooke which shows this.

  • Jeffery Ferrell says:

    I am a part of a church that has some policies in place.I see your point to some degree, however I see how a lack of policies leads to autonomy and people just doing what they want! For example Our choir is in turmoil because of many people with poor attitudes, they attend rehearsal when they "feel like it". Some have outright refused to participate in church-wide outings to visiting churches. My point is this in this scenario how do you address these people individually and say Sister Jones we're going to ask you not to be involved in the music ministry! Sis. Jones is going to respond why am I the one being singled out what about Sis. Smith, Sis. Williams , and Sis. Do little they all do stuff too? In that sense how do you address mass problems like that without some policies in place? Isn't the bible one big policy book?

    • ronedmondson says:

      I'd have a hard time saying the Bible was one big policy book. We are not under the law but under grace. I share a funny story about that concept in my message from Sunday, which is a few posts back. If it is a policy book, according to Galatians 5, which was my text from Sunday, then we'd have to keep everyone of the policies…even some of the Levitical ones that seem very strange in this culture.

      As I said, yes, policies are needed, just as a speed limit is needed. My rule of thumb is when it affects everyone and everyone needs control on that issue, a policy might be in order. The example you list, depending on your culture and the vision you are trying to attain, may be one of those. If only one person is the problem, address it with one person. Sometimes you even address it with the one person in the presence of everyone, if everyone agrees it is wrong. That way they know it was addressed and aren't questioning if you are leading. Plus it puts it before everyone.

      The key for me in this post is that the more policies you have, the more control you'll have. At some point that slows progress. Jesus healing on the Sabbath is a good example of "breaking the policy".

      Quick reply, but hope that clarifies some.

    • ronedmondson says:

      BTW, feel free to listen to my Galatians 5 message and let me know what you think.

  • — Policies kill creativity and innovativeness.
    — Policies discourage reponsible risk taking.
    — Policies fuel red-tapism and numbness.

  • Kari Scare

    My husband and I were kind of talking about this topic yesterday with regard to his job. He struggles between balancing managing and leading, and tries very hard to be a good leader. For me, I tend to dislike policies because I usually see a better way to do something. They have their place as guidelines, but so many people tend to get too rigid with them and use them as control mechanisms. This is one reason I prefer working from home on my own. No policies 🙂 (Okay, maybe a few for my kids.)

  • Mindi W. says:

    Handle individual problems individually – Rather than create a new policy to control an issue, deal directly with the individual who needs more control. (It works…try it.) –Yay for this thought. It is so refreshing and wise that it sounds original and I wish that more people thought this way. I really believe most needless organizational policies were developed because a leader (non-leader?) somewhere was afraid to deal with an individual who was causing problems.