Playing By the Rules Changes the Game

By Monty Hagler

On these long, hot summer days, my family has been playing numerous games on the porch at our lake house. Nothing involving computers or video games – we’re old school addicts for cards, checkers, Scrabble and Monopoly.
I’ve been playing Monopoly for decades, so I was deeply surprised when Peyton, my 9-year-old daughter, announced that we were not “playing by the rules.” She’d spent some time actually reading the small print Monopoly rules, and she was determined to start enforcing them. Some rules were not a big deal. There is no pot of money for whoever lands on “Free Parking.” But other rules fundamentally changed the way I had always played the game.
For example, I had understood that you can only buy a piece of property when you land on it. But that is not the rule. Any player can bid on a piece of property if the person who lands on it declines to purchase it. That dramatically alters the pace, flow and strategy of the game. It is less dependent upon luck – i.e. where the dice take you – and much more dependent upon fundamental strategies to buy, hold and sell real estate.
Let’s just say that under the new system – the legal way of playing the game – I got slaughtered by not only my 9-year-old, but my 11-year-old daughter as well. My mind couldn’t grasp the new approach, and my ability to compete under the real rules was seriously compromised!
I have thought about that lesson a lot as current events have unfolded in business and sports. When organizations ignore the rules, don’t learn the rules or deliberately bend the rules, it changes the playing field for everyone involved. It creates consequences for those who play by the rules, often to their detriment, until it’s exposed that violations are taking place.
Ten years ago, the telecommunications world was being roiled by an upstart company called Worldcom (no relation to the global public relations partnership that RLF is a part of). Worldcom was grabbing market share, offering unbelievable prices on services and hastening the demise of traditional telephone companies. I heard many stories from friends and professional colleagues of their bosses who were pounding the table asking their teams, “Why can’t we compete with Worldcom on price?” The answer was simple:  Worldcom was not playing by the rules. The Worldcom CEO is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for a $100 million accounting fraud, but the damage was done before he was ever convicted.
The list goes on – Enron, Madoff and now the Barclays LIBOR scandal. Even the Penn State scandal is reflective of an organization that benefited by not playing by the rules. Reporting the sexual abuse by a member of the coaching staff would have created negative publicity detrimental to the football program, so the rules of reporting illegal, unethical and immoral activities were ignored. That created an unfair playing field for the colleges and universities that competed with Penn State for players and coaches, and now the consequences of not playing by the rules are far more severe and damaging than if the issues had been addressed in the beginning. More importantly, it allowed the unconscionable abuse of young boys to continue.
It’s the job of communications professionals – whether in-house or agency consultants – to consistently advocate for organizations to understand, interpret and play by the rules. There is still plenty of room for flexibility and creativity. It would be boring, and career threatening, if we lived in a world that gave us no options in defining the meaning of things. But if companies have to play by the rules, the world looks very different. It is more transparent and rewarding of merit, hard work and skill. It operates more efficiently, sustainably and fairly. Perhaps it’s my Boy Scout training talking, but that is the kind of world I enjoy competing in.
Photo courtesy of PT Money’s Flickr photostream.