Other Lobe Thinking as It Applies to Rules: To Follow or Not to Follow

December 12, 2009 at 12:55 AM

Other Lobe Thinking as It Applies to Rules:  To Follow or Not to Follow


Cynthia Bainton and Jim Stellar


As administrators we complete tasks, manage projects, and lead people with the goal of fulfilling the missions of our institutions.  Doing these things requires organization and to organize we depend upon rules.  Rules are intended to keep order.  So when a rule creates chaos, then it is not serving its intended purpose.  That chaos might be a breakdown in organization or it might be the uncomfortable feeling that an individual has when asked to follow a specific rule.  This is where the limbic system comes into play, where the “other lobe” thinking is functioning, where experience and learning from experience can be the best teacher.


In his TED lecture on “Loss of Wisdom”, Barry Schwartz references Scott Simon’s apt statement that rules spare you from thinking. Indeed, it takes less effort to follow a rule than to question (think about) whether or not a particular rule bears following.  Furthermore, if one should choose to not follow a rule in a typical administrative hierarchy, one risks being reprimanded and subsequent emotional distress.  However, following a rule that one feels is not right may be equally emotionally distressing.


We have all had co-workers, subordinates or even bosses that can be described as “rule followers.”  While this trait may be linked to the possession of other admirable qualities such as attention to detail, thoroughness, consistency, and reliability, the inability of individuals to be flexible may have the unintended effect of forcing others to work around them. What we all need in direct reports are people who know how to follow rules (and even orders) but also know how to be flexible when the situation warrants it or even point out when the leader has made a mistake.  So how do you set that environment? Joseph Raelin, a professor at Northeastern, describes the notion of “leaderful practice” in a book he wrote when an organization is established that distributes leadership throughout, where people think for themselves as well as follow rules. 


Another argument in support of questioning the validity of rules is that of creativity.  Barry Schwartz (in “Loss of Wisdom”) cautions us that while rules prevent disaster, they insure mediocrity.  He also states that practical wisdom comes from interacting with people.  When a college or university sends one of its students to work, they begin to learn this practical wisdom. Robert Sternberg, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University referred to this as practical intelligence which can operate on problems that are not well defined (as in an academic test) and that are context specific ,  It is part of his WICS (Wisdom, Intelligence, Creativity Synthesized) model of developing skills and attitudes in college.  This concept was discussed in a conference last year at Clark University on “Liberal Education and Effective Practice.”


Does that mean that we are encouraging people to break rules?  No, we are encouraging people to question the validity of a rule that does not hold up to that person’s logic, in other words to engage one’s emotional intelligence.  In his book Blink about which a post appears in this blog, Malcolm Gladwell argues that we “thin slice” (his words) situations and circumstances all the time with a rapid, probably emotional intelligence, analysis.  We think that is the operation of  “other lobe” thinking and that it leads to practical wisdom.  We think that it is best taught in context, on the job, but with some reflection to make sense out of what happened before it is forgotten. Some institutions require reflection courses to accompany the experiential education component and these can become particular helpful to students by providing a safe environment where they can discuss with classmates a particular ethical dilemma they experienced in the workplace and the instructor can facilitate a discussion of the various actions the student could have chosen to pursue.


This post may seem to some to be a departure of the theme of learning from experience in higher education and it may be.  But we want to follow this kind of “otherlobe” thinking into all arenas.  Besides, it is in organizations that most of us work and for which College prepares.  It is the goal of experiential education to prepare for application of content knowledge to just those circumstances.  Finally, we have argued here repeatedly, that there is something about the emotional logic circuits (as well as sensory and motor too) that may be very useful for making these kinds of logical evaluations about where to follow rules and where to set them aside.  Once we understand the practical wisdom of that decision, we will be in a much better place to design programs in colleges and universities to help our students learn even more than we currently teach.  Then, not only will business be happier with the work force we are training, but we bet the core academic indicators – critical thinking and creativity – will be enhanced as well.   

Seeking experiential education in undergraduate research after transferring to a new university

3 Responses to “Other Lobe Thinking as It Applies to Rules: To Follow or Not to Follow”

  1. Susan says:

    Jim, I loved this post. I agree that while rules are necessary, there are times when the overuse of rules can hog-tie creativity the way a cowboy can drop a steer by yanking its legs out from under it. Sometimes, we need to consider careful rule breaking to foster anything from better morale in workers, to freer creativity.

  2. Jim Stellar says:

    Ashley and Sue, Thank you. Cynthia and I have written other posts about leadership and I suppose it really could all be boiled down to “practical intelligence” learned from interacting with people by folks who have the capacity to think with the other lobe of the brain beyond the lobe that can learn and remember all of the formal rules. One aspect of this general idea is a question I have about how much does learning the rules play in setting up the frame for the practical intellgence to manipulate or break those same rules. It seems to me that in higher education, one needs to have a certain amount of content knowledge to have a productive experiential reaction even if it is to switch one’s major away from that field, but especially if it is to deepen one’s passion for the field. What do you think. Is content knowledge the “cart” one has to put before the “horse,” or can it be the other way around?

  3. Swapna Rao says:

    This article strikes a chord with many of us working in large institutions, many of which are meant to serve the public but by virtue of their vast size and scope, simply cannot do so adequately with a one-size-fits-all approach. A case in point would be the “No Child Left Behind Act” – a plan that I believe to have been well-intentioned in purpose but faulty in practical application. I can definitely speak from experience about the internal discord one feels when adhering to a set of rules stemming from an impractical philosophy when trying to do your job. I strongly agree that ‘careful’ rule-breaking is vital; dismissing all rules as being stifling will lead to chaos. I really like the idea of “practical intelligence” Jim Stellar mentioned since it is not enough to have visions and it is not enough to understand details. Both must be integrated. I actually believe that content knowledge, a.k.a. ‘the basics’ or ‘a foundation’, is necessary for one to be useful in an experiential opportunity. Once some sort of foundation is established, further content development and experiential education can mutually develop one’s overall education.

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