rules-vs-agreementsIt’s back-to-school time for many students, which means a classic ritual will be re-enacted in thousands of classrooms… without much attention to the real goal.  Teacher, “Does anyone have an idea of rules we should have for our classroom this year?”  

Keen student, hand thrust eagerly in the air, “You have to raise your hand to talk.”  

Teacher, “Oh, that’s a good one.”  (Writes it carefully on the scroll-shaped-paper headed “Our Class Rules”)

Another student calls out, “School should be fun.” (Teacher ignores, and looks for a student who will say, “We line up before leaving class….”)

Eventually, there’s a list of rules, and it looks much like EVERY classroom’s list of rules.  It was “student generated” though, so they will be committed to these rules, right?


Let’s take another example.  At work, we’re forming a new partnership, and we start by discussing, “What is our shared goal?”  Then we spend time considering how we can best reach the goal — and then jot a few agreements about how we’ll work together in this partnership.  We pass this back and forth a few times, and decide maybe we even sign it.

Does this feel different to you?


I suspect we’re often confused about the difference between “Rules” and “Agreements,” and this confusion has a significant impact on motivation. 

Rules are imposed.  They’re set for the purpose of compliance.  Transgressions should be punished to maintain the power of the rule.  Rules are “above people.”  The locus of control is external, teaching us that we don’t have the power – so we’re pushed toward obedience rather than internal motivation. 

Agreements are negotiated.  They’re set for the purpose of collaboration.  Transgressions should be discussed to learn.  Agreements are “between people.”  The locus of control is internal, teaching us that we have the power – so we’re pushed toward intrinsic motivation.  


Let’s return to the question of the goal.  Is this list in place so we can learn, individually and together?  Or is it in place so we have order?  Compliance?  Safety or the perception of safety?  The illusion of respect or real respect?  

What happens when there is a transgression?  Is that an opportunity to reinforce the rule and show it’s seriousness?  Or is it an opportunity for learning?


What would happen in your office, classroom, or family if you replaced many of your Rules with Agreements?  Probably it would take more time at the outset – would this investment pay off?  What’s the emotional affect?

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