Robot workers obeying the law

4. Law

… Can people become compliant robots and still be good at work?

What laws ought we to obey? Why should we obey them? What laws might we, or must we disobey, morally?

When Aristotle wrote about the art of persuasion, he used the words “ethos”, “pathos” and “logos”, meaning character, empathy and logic. We have already looked at the power of LOVE and LOGIC and we will soon look at character and integrity. But, before we do, we need to understand the moral imperative of obeying the LAW.

The word ‘law’ comes from the Old Norse word ‘lag’, which means, “something laid down or fixed”. There is no doubt that having some tried and tested, basic laws laid down and fixed can save us a lot of time endlessly debating right from wrong in common situations. In most families, communities and societies, we accept these universal norms and taboos of behaviour because they keep us safe and sustain our lives. For example, we agree not to hurt or kill each other, to steal other people’s stuff and to share what we need, fairly.

“Integrity has no need of rules.” 

Albert Camus

Yelling Cop - 'Law' How to be Good at work

In 1948, almost all of the world’s governments signed up to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are just 30 Articles, beginning with:

Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

In terms of work, Articles 23 -25 make very interesting reading.

Article 23.
 (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Most of us would agree with these 30 universal human rights, but even this short and simple list is challenging. How well does your own employer recognise, respect and actively promote these rights?!

If you look at the culture of most employers, are they beacons of democracy and human rights or do they more closely resemble a more medieval, feudal style monarchy where very few of these articles have any real meaning?

When discussing this question with leaders and their workforce, the depressing truth is that most people feel the culture they experience at work is more feudal than the liberal, social democracies many of us believe (or hope) we live in.

A further reality is that not only do we fail to work to the United Nation’s challenging but concise declaration of beliefs, we create instead tens of thousands of lesser rules, processes and systems, which not only overwhelm us, they create a palpable culture of fear which damages or destroys relationships, trust, creativity and entrepreneurship.

As Tacitus wrote in The Annals of Imperial Rome, “The more corrupt the state, the greater the number of laws”.

It has been my overwhelming experience, confirmed through my research, that the primary emotional driver for many people at work isn’t love, it’s fear of the “law”, which at work means rules, regulations, targets, “the system” and of course, “the boss”.

“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

John F. Kennedy

Thinking business woman contemplating law and culture of fear

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” 

Rob Siltanen, for Apple’s “Think Different” campaign in 1997

So many of us are not good at work because of JFDI, or if our Dear Leader has been on an emotional intelligence course JFDIP!

How then should we consider the rule of Law when we aim to be good at work?

A useful method is to consider how a law, rule, process or system makes sense from the moral perspectives of Love and Logic.

For example, why do we have a law that requires us to wear a seatbelt? For many years, until it became the law, many people didn’t stop to consider the damage they would do to themselves and those that cared for them when they had an accident and were injured or killed. People argue that not wearing a seatbelt shows a lack of love for self as well as for others who care or depend on you. It also shows a lack of thought or logic. It makes no sense not to spend a few seconds to fasten your seatbelt given the unlikely but catastrophic consequences of a collision. So, rather than having a continuous debate about whether wearing a seatbelt is the right thing to do, we passed a law.

Sadly, much of my work over the last 15 years has resulted not from people deliberately breaking any of the tens of thousands of rules that we must comply with at work, but by ordinary people so overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of governance, compliance and risk systems, that they switch off their ability to think for themselves. We have become compliant robots who tick boxes, but fail to exercise conscious thought.

This unintended consequence has already been admitted by some regulators. For example, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has stated in several speeches over the last few years:

The second FCA priority has been to re-assess the regulatory balance between ethics and rules. Should one dominate the other?

In his excellent book Ethicability, Roger Steare argues for a more sophisticated interpretation of integrity in business. One that is not simply defined by the ethics of obedience, so what is legally right or wrong, but actually looks towards the ethics of care and the ethics of reason.

Steare talks about rules subordinating ethics, suggesting that, ‘at their worst, laws, regulations and red tape have a tendency to multiply because they remove our responsibility for deciding what’s right.’

His chief concern here: the fact that governments tend to respond to scandal with regulations, without considering that it’s this ‘obedience culture’ that often fails in the first place.

So, if we take the FSA as just one example of this culture. You see its guidance increasing by some 27% during 2005-08, a period that coincides with many of the most explosive crises we’re dealing with today.

Now, clearly regulators and firms still require rules to function effectively. But experience tells us red tape is more easily hurdled than principles. So as we move forward, firms will begin to see themselves held up against stricter ethical standards.

In summary, if we think about the rule of Law at work (aka bureaucracy and compliance), we must ask ourselves, “What are the good laws we must comply with to keep everyone safe and sustained; and what are the bad laws that we must repeal because not only do they actually increase risk, they also stifle our humanity and creativity?”

As well as drawing my own conclusions I read and research many papers, books, articles and essays on how we, as humans, go about our business. Discover a selection and read on within More Good Thinking.