Rules vs. Principles

Last summer, brand eins’ post “Rules are a guide – not a dog leash” triggered a heated discussion in which I also diligently participated.

The course of this discussion showed me once again how much we long for new forms of work and how hard we struggle with ourselves, with old and new beliefs, and with concepts and their interpretation when we question Taylorist traditions.

We at eurosysteam GmbH have a very clear stance on the subject of rules:

Rules are documented knowledge (how to manage something in the past). They help to increase efficiency and ensure security. They are right and important in areas of organizations that are designed for stability and continuity.

Here they reduce self-realization tendencies and waste – but also take away thinking and responsibility.

That’s why you stand for 10 minutes at midnight at a red light on a clear village crossroads – because the rule says: stand at red. Whether this makes sense or not is irrelevant – the rule takes away the responsibility for the decision (and possible misconduct; here: simply continuing to drive on red – is sanctioned).

In an ever more dynamic, change-intensive world, in which knowledge quickly becomes obsolete – how are rules supposed to help us? We would have to create more and more rules faster and faster in order to document every change in the environment as knowledge in the organization – until the flood of (then often contradictory) old and new rules eventually crushes us, these internal references block our view of new solutions, new knowledge to be acquired on the market (external reference).

Therefore, in such areas of organizations, where flexibility and speed of adaptation are important, we rather plead for principles, which create an orientation framework in which we can make decisions and act ourselves (keyword: self-organization). And principles are not “framework rules” (rules remain rules even if they are called something else).


Let’s try to give an example on the topic “Release for goodwill behavior to employees” (somewhat shortened and generalized derived from the discussion):

The “rule” approach: employees can immediately dispose of 500 EUR for goodwill issues and freely decide how much you grant the customer. Above 500 EUR, a decision template and approval by the sales contact responsible for the customer is required.

The “principles” approach:
1. we do not “buy” customer satisfaction (e.g. through discounts and goodwill)
2. in the event of a (complaint), our employees decide on their own responsibility in the specific situation in the interests of the company
3. we respect the decisions of our employees and learn from them for future decisions.

Sounds simple? But it is not!

Principles provide orientation in the form of a framework for action, call for (re)thinking and responsible action, and there needs to be an organizational “digestion process” downstream of the decisions that helps the actors to reflect and the organization to learn. In many organizations, this already fails due to the prevailing image of man and the leadership culture geared to it.

If you would like to talk to us about solutions to this dilemma and learn more about our understanding of corporate and human resources development, we would be happy to invite you to a personal exchange with us in Heidelberg or in our virtual meeting room in Microsoft Teams. Just get in touch at